No state in modern times had gone down this road. Popular wisdom said that no state would ever go down this road again.
Popular wisdom said that the majority of New Jerseyans demanded the death penalty and would reject replacing it with life without parole.
Popular wisdom said that state lawmakers would also reject it - for political reasons.
It was popular wisdom, and it was wrong.
On December 17, 2007, with Governor Jon Corzine's signature, New Jersey became the first state since the 1976 reestablishment of the death penalty to legislatively abolish it.
This historic event did not happen overnight, and it would not have happened without years of effort from the members, staff, advisory committee, and executive committee of New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (NJADP).
The road began in 1999, with the meeting of a small group of activists, including Lorry Post, the founder, the first Executive Director of NJADP and the father of a murder victim, and Celeste Fitzgerald, who as NJADP's next Executive Director would become the driving force behind abolition.
This small group recruited other volunteers and began to spread the word. NJADP grew in size, joined by lawyers, judges, clergy of all denominations, members of victim's families, law enforcement officers, and many others, convinced that the death penalty was the wrong policy. A national group, Equal Justice USA, shared valuable organizing tips and tools. NJADP volunteers used these tools to bring into the campaign even more individuals and groups. Membership in NJADP soared into the thousands. Volunteers held petition drives and informational sessions, explaining the problems with the death penalty, called and wrote legislators, helped with fundraising, and lobbied personally for a moratorium to study the death penalty.
These efforts were so successful that on January 12, 2006, Governor Richard Codey, one of the sponsors of the 1982 law that restored the death penalty in New Jersey, signed a bill, creating the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission to examine all aspects of the capital punishment system and instituting a moratorium until the Commission could complete its work. The Commission’s thirteen members included four members of law enforcement, a retired supreme court justice, religious leaders, a victims’ advocate who had lost a family member to murder, and four other individuals who had also lost a loved one to murder.
The Commission held six public hearings on the death penalty. NJADP members packed the rooms to listen to testimony on the risk of executing the innocent, on the high cost of the death penalty, on the fairness of the death penalty, and on the effect of the long and complex death penalty process on the families of murder victims.
In January 2007, the Commission released its report, recommending that the death penalty in New Jersey be replaced with life without parole. Bi-partisan legislation was introduced in both the New Jersey Assembly and the New Jersey Senate.
NJADP members acted. Members sent letters to legislators and wrote editorials. Prosecutors, law enforcement personnel, and study commission members joined in the effort, writing editorials in support of abolition. Victims' families appealed for a better way.
In December, legislators heard the calls. It was close, but in a bipartisan vote, the Senate and Assembly passed the bill abolishing the death penalty and replacing it with life without parole. On December 17, 2007, in Governor Corzine’s office and with many NJADP members in attendance, the historic signing took place. That evening, to honor the people of New Jersey for this life affirming step, the city of Rome, Italy illuminated the Roman Coliseum.1
The work of NJADP to replace the death penalty has been completed, although the capital punishment remains in thirty-five other states, presenting the same problems that NJADP uncovered in New Jersey. NJADP continues to support the groups working to end executions across the nation. Within New Jersey, NJADP's mission has changed: supporting legislation to help the families of murder victims and to compensate those wrongfully convicted of serious crimes. NJADP believes that abolition is more than the absence of the death penalty. It’s the presence of justice. NJADP continues on the road to social justice.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --
I took the road less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
1 Just two years later, in March of 2009, Rome once again lit up the Coliseum, this time to honor the people of New Mexico upon the signing of legislation that ended the death penalty in that state.