Sunday, March 18, 2007

Changed Your Mind?

There's been a surge in members of the law enforcement community speaking out against the death penalty. I was tabling after Mass at a church in New Jersey last weekend when the man who had read the scripture during the service came to the table we had set up in the gathering area. He was friends with Ed, the parishioner who was helping out at the table. Ed introduced us and told me this man is a detective, and as it happens, a training officer at the county police academy. Perhaps I should not have been, but I was startled to notice under his suit jacket that he was packing his service firearm. I'd expect that, I suppose, but even in church? Anyway, Lt. Fred signed our letter to the local state legislators asking them to support the New Jersey bill to change the death penalty to life without parole. Then he told us what he says most cops know - the death penalty wastes tax payer dollars that could be better spent on prevention efforts and services for victims families. And he told us about jurors he had interviewed who had given life instead of death on the premise that life in prison is a far harsher punishment than an easy death. Hey, I'll take my abolitionists any way I can get them.

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 facts

I 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....


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