Pulling Back From The Brink
Why are death sentences and executions dropping?
Wrongful convictions have been a factor in New Jersey, too. Nate Walker was picked out of a lineup and eventually convicted in a 1976 kidnapping and rape. The jury gave the Newark resident a sentence of life plus 50 years; 12 years later blood tests his lawyer had never asked for exonerated him. He's proof, Walker tells audiences during speeches he now gives, that the innocent can go to jail.
Inspired. Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center says the number of death sentences handed down by U.S. courts has plummeted--from 300 in 1998 to 106 last year. New Jersey is one of a number of states with death penalty laws on the books but not much of a will to carry them out. Even California, with 649 prisoners on death row, has executed only 13 in the 30 years since capital punishment, essentially declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972, was reinstated after a four-year hiatus. (Texas, the leader, has put 362 prisoners to death since 1977, including seven so far this year.)
In New Jersey, the anti-capital-punishment organization New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty marshaled thousands of volunteers to get the legislative moratorium passed as Martini and other death row inmates seemed to be headed toward execution. Many of those volunteers were inspired by Pope John Paul II, who called for an end to executions during a U.S. visit in 1999, says the group's director, Celeste Fitzgerald. But Lorry Post, a former legal services lawyer who helped found the organization, was stirred by more personal reasons. His daughter, Lisa, was stabbed to death by her husband in 1988. Post has always opposed capital punishment and said he would have been "a hypocrite" to change his mind after his daughter's murder. "Society shouldn't be killing people," says Post, who often wondered what he would tell his granddaughter if her father were to be executed.
The most effective argument against execution, he says, is pragmatic, not moral: Numerous studies including those by the American Bar Association and the American Civil Liberties Union have shown that a defendant's odds of being condemned to death depend far more on race, the quality of legal representation, and geography than on the facts. Such reports have compiled nightmare stories of defendants' lawyers showing up drunk or woefully unprepared--and in one case, neglecting to tell the jury the defendant was mentally retarded. The ABA says the results of poor lawyering are "often literally fatal for capital defendants."
Geography can play a similar role. A 2002 ACLU report found that 82 percent of executions in the past 25 years occurred in just 10 states--with Texas and Virginia accounting for half. "It's impossible to be fair when imposing the death penalty," says Post, whose former son-in-law will be released from a Georgia prison in less than 27 months.
Marilyn Flax disagrees. She was in her early 40s when Martini called her and demanded ransom for her husband, who had just been kidnapped. "I spoke to the killer many times on the phone that day. I had a bulletproof vest on. I was wired. I made a ransom drop," says Flax. Martini still pumped three bullets into her husband's head.