Last week in Maryland there was a press conference featuring law enforcement professionals calling for abolition of the death penalty. That same day the Philadelphia Inquirer printed the following letter from the Police Chief of West Orange, NJ:
Death-penalty recommendations based on factsI am the chief of police of West Orange, N.J. I was one of 13 members of the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission which recommended replacing the death penalty with life in prison without possibility of parole.
It was a recommendation based upon facts, careful study and much deliberation.
So I read with interest the March 2 commentary about the study by Sharon Hazard-Johnson.
I have great empathy for the writer, who lost her devoted parents to a horrific murder. She has every right to disagree with our recommendation. However, I feel compelled to reply to her assertions about how and why we arrived at our conclusion.
The makeup of the commission was both balanced and fair.
Sitting around me - a pro-death-penalty police chief - was a retired Supreme Court justice who had upheld capital punishment; two current county prosecutors, who had sought it; the father of a murder victim; a victims' advocate, and other dedicated citizens.
This was nothing if not a transparent examination by a credible and unbiased panel.
Pro-death-penalty advocates had every opportunity to express their views at several hearings, which were public and well-advertised.
Ms. Hazard-Johnson herself was the only witness to testify more than once. We considered her position so fully that she was cited in the commission's report.
I didn't go into the study thinking I would vote to end the death penalty, but with each hearing, it became clearer that New Jersey's death penalty isn't working and is actually doing far more harm than good.
I have no sympathy for killers. My sympathy is with the families of murder victims. It was those very family members who helped change my mind during the course of the hearings.
I had no idea how much families suffer, facing years of capital appeals and reversals. Even in states that carry out executions, the process takes years and reversals are many. And, in capital cases, there is more attention paid to the murderer and less to the victim.
I don't oppose the death penalty in theory. But I have learned that a fair, accurate and effective system doesn't exist.
It doesn't make sense to keep reaching for the impossible when the alternative of life in prison without parole both ensures public safety and puts victims' families first.
I stand by not only the commission's recommendation, but the open and fair process we used to reach it.
James P. Abbott
Chief of Police
West Orange Police Department
West Orange, N.J.
We abolitionists still have a tough job ahead of us, but it's getting easier....