As New Jersey goes, so goes the nation? In the case of the death penalty, which was abolished in that state on Dec. 17, that may well happen. Slowly, the United States is making progress on this immoral practice, especially as doubts about its practicality increase.
When New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine signed the bill that replaced the capital-punishment law with one that requires life in prison without parole, his state became the first in more than 40 years to abolish the death penalty.
That mirrors a growing national unease with state-sanctioned execution. (Global disdain was evident this week when the UN passed a nonbinding moratorium on the death penalty.)
In the US, executions are at a 13-year low. In New York, where the state's high court ruled the death penalty statute unconstitutional in 2004, the legislature has beaten back attempts to reinstate the law.
California, North Carolina, and Tennessee are carrying out legislative reviews of the death penalty – the same process that led a New Jersey legislative commission to conclude in January that "there is no compelling evidence that the New Jersey death penalty rationally serves a legitimate penological intent," such as deterrence.
"Rationally" is an important word here, because it is the practical considerations more than the moral ones that are turning the tide against execution as punishment.
Those who oppose the death penalty on moral grounds (including this newspaper), believe their arguments are reason enough to abolish this type of punishment, which is still the law of 36 states. It is government's obligation to preserve life, not extinguish it. This ultimate sanction cuts off the opportunity for redemption, and perpetuates the idea that justice must include revenge.
The case against the death penalty is strengthened by increasing evidence that it fails other tests.
An important one is that it's not mistake proof. Illinois is in its eighth year of a capital-punishment moratorium because of concerns about wrongful convictions.
The increasing use of DNA evidence to exonerate death row inmates points to weaknesses in the system. Since 1973, more than 120 people have been removed from death row on evidence of innocence. Recently, the US Supreme Court began to overturn death penalty convictions because of incompetent lawyering.
Cost also argues against the death penalty. It is simply more expensive for states to handle death-row cases than life without parole, which is one reason why many states have added life without parole as an alternative. Lengthy appeals drive up costs and delay justice.
The Supreme Court has advanced beyond practical arguments by noting evolving "standards of decency" regarding the death penalty. In 2002, the High Court ended the death penalty for the mentally retarded; in 2005, it banned it for juveniles; now it's considering whether lethal injection amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.
Juries mete out capital punishment for heinous crimes, and those crimes should not be belittled. But life in prison without parole can appropriately punish and keep the public safe. Both moral and practical considerations should move more states to this conclusion.