Testimony of Michael Murphy to the New Jersey Department of Corrections
February 4, 2005
I appear before you
today offering the perspective of a person who has spent many
years in various positions in the public life of New Jersey. I have
served as a County Prosecutor in Morris County, a Chief Public
Defender, an assistant Prosecutor, staff member of the now sadly
defunct Department of the Public Advocate and as a candidate for
Governor in 1997.
Perspective is more than a view. It is, in my judgment, a cumulative vision based on experience, accumulated knowledge and just plain common sense.
In the not so distant past I was one, among many individuals, in our society who accepted the notion that Capital Punishment had a valid position in the Criminal Justice system of New Jersey. While serving as a Prosecutor I allowed myself to believe, based on certain studies, that the Death Penalty was a meaningful deterrent to crime. I was of the mind that the enormous resources poured into the death process were justifiable in order to 'send a message' to offenders who may be of a like homicidal mind. Today, rendering testimony before this committee, I readily confess error. I could not have been more wrong.
Persuasive scientific studies have demonstrated that Capital Punishment has no deterrent effect. The 'message' we send when the Death Penalty is embraced is that we acknowledge our failure as a society of civilized humans. In order to exact retribution on the most depraved persons among us we, collectively, reduce ourselves to the lowly level of those we have condemned.
There is a pragmatic reason to reject death as an available means of punishment in New Jersey. In an age of terror, both in our neighborhoods as well as in the international arena, our law enforcement resources are stretched so thinly that the sinews of the public safety community are in danger of breaking. Every available dollar must be invested in programs and systems, which achieve the end result of keeping our cities, state and world safer. In an effort to exact the ultimate punishment of society's most heinous criminals we have created a labyrinth of laws, procedures and endless appeals which, of necessity, drain precious resources from the legitimate goals of our law enforcers. Millions of dollars are dumped into the elusive crusade of ending a criminal’s life by the hand of the state sanctioned executioner.
In 1963, the year in which New Jersey last employed the death penalty, I was an adolescent. My late stepfather, Governor Richard J. Hughes, found himself in the position of Chief Executive with the power to end or continue the life of a fellow human being. Years later he told me how tortuous it was to be thrust into that role. He recalled how he, as a youngster, sat with his mother at the Trenton State Prison when his father, Richard P. Hughes was warden of the prison. On the execution days the families of the condemned were invited into the wardens parlor to await the moment when the lights flickered and everyone knew that the state had exacted it's price. It was the state's way of offering comfort to devastated and grieving families. Those scenes were seared into my father's memory, only to be joined many years later by one even more painful.
The last execution in New Jersey, of Ralph Hudson in 1963 for the murder of his wife Myrtle, was carried out during my father's administration. The painful decision to allow Hudson's execution to go forward profoundly impacted him.
Time has shed light on the impact of the Hudson execution that cold January day in 1963. Hudson's attorney never accepted another death penalty case. Seeing his client go to the execution chamber had exacted too great an emotional toll. Many years later Hudson's executioner, Dow P. Hover, borrowed from New York, was discovered dead in his Plymouth, the engine running and the window open - in a closed garage.
Over 40 years ago, the Governor had the power, until the last instant, to reprieve or even pardon the condemned. Under New Jersey's current scheme of death, the decision is cast at some time after lethal drugs begin to flow into the veins of the restrained defendant. Any last minute appeals are rendered futile during the last few minutes of that accused's life.
On issues of life and death we, as a society, cannot confer on ourselves the luxury of a cavalier attitude regarding the imposition of Capital Punishment.
I implore the Department of Corrections to study deeply, consider carefully and deliberate wisely whether the procedures you adopt are truly appropriate given the grave consequences that will arise.