The New Jersey Legislature is considering whether to abolish the state’s death penalty — which on the face of it seems hardly worth mentioning, since there are only 8 men on New Jersey’s Death Row and the state hasn’t executed anybody since 1963.
But here’s why it matters (and the death penalty is worth keeping): its value as a bargaining chip. Agreeing to drop the death penalty is probably the most effective means of persuading a killer to plead guilty, sparing the state the cost of the trial and sparing the family the hardship of the trial, and often leading to the recovery of the victim’s body.
Of course this raises the question of why any defendant would give up the chance of acquittal, however remote, in states where there is no real threat of execution.
I spoke with former LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman a while back (shortly after the publication of Death and Justice), and brought up that question:
You know, something I’ve been wondering about, maybe you have some insight on it having been in California law enforcement: California’s death penalty… Why do people make such a big deal about it? I mean a few years ago, [David] Westerfield was ready to lead police to Danielle [van Dam]’s body, essentially pleading guilty to murdering her, in exchange for the prosecution not seeking the death penalty [the deal fell through when Danielle’s body was found]. But… We’re not talking about Texas. He’s not going to live to be executed. I did the math, and at the rate people are being executed in California, Scott Peterson won’t be executed until the 31st century. So is there something I’m missing about the California death penalty that would make Westerfield willing to plead guilty to avoid it?
Fuhrman: Some people say you’re treated better in Death Row, but they’re isolated more, so if you’ve committed the crime, and now you have to take it out of our way of thinking, you have to put it in their way of thinking, you say “Okay, I’m burned on this. I’m going down. So now what’s my life going to be?” If they get death, they’re going to be in Death Row. And if they’re in Death Row, then they’ve got X amount of people they’re with, and security’s higher, they have nothing to lose, their associations and social life are limited; so if they want to look at what it’s like to have life without possibility of parole, they’ll have more freedom, they’ll probably be able to have a prison job, they’ll have an exercise yard, they’ll get to play handball. It sounds bizarre that you can talk about it on this level, but there you are.
The New Jersey Senate voted on Monday to abolish the state’s death penalty, and the Assembly is expected to vote Thursday. Governor Jon Corzine has indicated he will sign the bill into law if passed.
(The complete interview with Mark Fuhrman is here)