Pulling Back From The Brink
Why are death sentences and executions dropping?
TRENTON, N.J.--One way or another, convicted murderer John Martini will die in this city's aged state prison, where he's marking time on death row with New Jersey's nine other condemned men.
At 75, he's an old man with an old man's infirmities--cataracts, a stomach ailment, and a bum hip that keeps him in a wheelchair. Martini, who 17 years ago kidnapped and killed businessman Irving Flax, also has a morbid distinction: His appeals are all but exhausted, and he's in line to become the first New Jersey inmate executed in 43 years.
"This is the closest the state has gotten in decades to an actual execution," says Marilyn Zdobinski, the county prosecutor who in 1990 put Martini behind bars. He has since been convicted of earlier murders in Arizona and Pennsylvania.
But it recently became more likely that Martini will die from the ravages of old age: New Jersey lawmakers this year became the first in the nation to pass a legislative moratorium on executions. They've ordered a new commission to determine whether the state's death penalty law is "consistent with evolving standards of decency" or whether it should be abolished in favor of life sentences without parole.
"We have a governor [Democrat Jon Corzine] who's in favor of abolishing the death penalty, as well as Republicans who feel the same," says state Sen. Raymond Lesniak, a Democrat and former death penalty supporter who sponsored the bill. "It would eliminate any possibility of executing an innocent person."
New Jersey joins a growing roster of states re-evaluating their laws at a time when executions in the United States--last year there were 60--are matching their lowest level in more than a decade. New York declined to reinstate the death penalty after its high court struck down the law, and governors--including those in California and Florida--have temporarily suspended capital punishment amid a flurry of legal challenges claiming that the most common method of execution, lethal injection, is cruel and unusual. Critics say that improper administration of anesthesia as the first in the three-step process has caused those being executed excruciating pain. For that reason, federal executions are on temporary hold as well. Last week the issue landed in the U.S. Supreme Court, where justices heard lawyers for a Florida death row inmate argue that their client should be allowed to file a civil rights appeal challenging lethal injection as unconstitutional.
Torn. What's happening is reflective of a nation seemingly at odds with itself. A recent Gallup Poll shows that support for executions, though down from its peak, is still 64 percent. But it is also clear that many, including prosecutors and judges, are growing increasingly queasy about imposing death--agonizing not only over how and whom to kill but over whether those facing execution have a fair shot at proving their innocence. Courts with growing frequency are choosing life in prison as an alternative.
Nothing has unsettled people more than the parade of prisoner exonerations based on DNA evidence. In 1992, lawyers Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld founded the Innocence Project to pursue DNA tests that might free prisoners who claimed to be wrongfully convicted. In 2000, Illinois Gov. George Ryan halted executions and eventually commuted 164 death sentences to life in prison after 13 innocent people were found on his state's death row. The Innocence Project, now one of more than 30 such efforts nationally, says it has helped exonerate 175 prisoners, including 14 who were at one time sentenced to death.