When Governor Jon Corzine signed legislation repealing New Jersey's death
penalty on Monday, there were quite a few people for whom he had good words.
In the course of what The New York Times called "an extended and often
passionate speech," Corzine praised the members of the Death Penalty Study
Commission who had recommended the repeal. He saluted the "courageous
leadership" of the state legislators who had voted for it, mentioning eight of
them by name. He thanked New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty,
an activist group, for having "put pressure on those of us in public service to
stand up and do the right thing." He proclaimed himself "eternally grateful" to
other anti-death-penalty organizations, especially the New Jersey Catholic
Conference and the ACLU. He acknowledged "the millions of people across our
nation and around the globe who reject the death penalty." He noted politely
that there are "good people" who support capital punishment and opposed the
bill. He even quoted Martin Luther King Jr.
Gov. Jon Corzine displays the signed bill repealing New Jersey's death penalty
at the state capitol.
But there were some people Corzine forgot to mention.
The governor forgot Kristin Huggins. She was the 22-year-old graphic artist
kidnapped in 1992 by Ambrose Harris, who stuffed her into the trunk of her car,
let her out in order to rape her, and then shot her twice once in the back
of her head, once point-blank in the face.
The governor forgot Irene Schnaps, a 37-year-old widow butchered by Nathaniel
Harvey in 1985. After breaking into her apartment and robbing her, he killed
her with 15 blows to the head, using a "hammer-like" weapon with such violence
that he fractured her skull, broke her jaw, and knocked out her teeth.
The governor forgot Megan Kanka, who was just 7 years old when she was murdered
by a neighbor, Jesse Timmendequas. A convicted sex offender, Timmendequas lured
Megan into his house by offering to show her a puppy. Then he raped her,
smashed her into a dresser, wrapped plastic bags around her head, and strangled
her with a belt.
Indeed, the governor forgot to mention *any* of the victims murdered by the men
on New Jersey's death row. He signed an order reducing the killers' sentences
to life in prison, and assured his audience "that these individuals will never
again walk free in our society." But he spoke not a word about any of the men,
women, and children who will never again walk at all or smile, or dream, or
breathe because their lives were brutally taken from them by the murderers
the new law spares.
That's the way it so often is with death-penalty opponents like Corzine: In
their zeal to keep the guilty alive, they forget the innocents who have died.
Their conscience is outraged by the death penalty, but only when it is lawfully
applied to convicted murderers after due process of law. The far more common
"death penalty" the one imposed unlawfully on so many murder victims, often
with wanton cruelty doesn't disturb their conscience nearly so much.
Nor do their consciences seem overly troubled by the additional lives lost when
capital punishment is eliminated.
A widening sheaf of studies (some by scholars who personally oppose the death
penalty) have found that each time a murderer is executed, between 3 and 18
additional homicides are deterred. To mention just one of these studies,
University of Houston professors Dale Cloninger and Roberto Marchesini studied
the effect of the death-penalty moratorium declared by Illinois Governor George
Ryan in 2000, and Ryan's subsequent commutation of every death-row inmate's
sentence. Result: an estimated 150 additional murders in Illinois over the
subsequent 48 months.
New Jersey hasn't executed anyone since 1963, so the new law may be largely
symbolic. But there is nothing symbolic about all the blood shed since the
death penalty was abandoned 44 years ago. In 1963, there were 181 homicides in
the Garden State. By 1970, the annual death toll had topped 400, and by 1980,
it was over 500. The number has fluctuated, but state officials calculated in
2002 that on average, a murder was committed in New Jersey every 25 hours and
While the murder rate since 2000 has declined modestly across the country, it
has "jumped 44 percent in Jersey, up from 3.4 murders per 100,000 people to
4.9," writes Steven Malanga of the Manhattan Institute. "Jersey's increase in
murders has been the sixth-highest in the country."
That may explain why 53 percent of the state's residents opposed the
death-penalty repeal, according to a new Quinnipiac poll, while 78 percent
favored retaining it for "the most violent cases." Perhaps they grasp the truth
that eludes the politicians in Trenton: When the death penalty is unavailable,
more innocent victims die.