NEW YORK (AFP) — Anti-execution activists see New Jersey's new law rejecting capital punishment as a historic landmark in their fight to end the death penalty in the United States.
New Jersey became the first US state in four decades to vote to abolish the death penalty on Thursday when the Democratic-controlled state assembly passed the law by a vote of 44 to 36.
The state Senate had voted along the same lines Monday, and Jon Corzine, the Democratic governor of the northeastern state, has repeatedly expressed support for the measure and has vowed to sign it into law by January.
The Council of Europe welcomed the move as "courageous" in a statement. European Union members make rejecting execution a human rights condition of membership.
According to David Fathi, of Human Rights Watch, execution has not delivered.
"The experience has failed. The death penalty has not deterred crime," Fathi told AFP. "Even among Republicans, more and more know that it is not a solution."
The "death penalty divides the US from mature democracies, as France, Canada. The US stands alone among mature democracies, it stands along with Iran and China," he observed, predicting that "the time will come when the US finally joins the civilized world."
During Thursday's debate in the New Jersey Assembly Republican lawmaker Christopher Bateman said "We need to change the course on this important issue. New Jersey must be a leader."
But most Republicans still opposed the law, with some labeling it a gift to murderers and rapists.
The head of Amnesty International for the United States, Larry Cox, called New Jersey's move "a harbinger of things to come."
"Lawmakers across the country are realizing that capital punishment is permanently flawed, and the public is increasingly wary of a system that holds the very real possibility of executing the innocent," Cox said.
Although New Jersey has not executed anyone since 1963, it still has eight people on death row and came close to executing a prisoner two years ago, said Joshua Rubenstein, northeast regional director of Amnesty International USA.
It was one of the states that reinstalled the death penalty after the US Supreme Court overturned an earlier ban in 1976, but it has observed a freeze on executions since 2005 along with nearly two dozen other states.
Iowa and West Virginia were the last states to vote to abolish executions in 1965. Executions are currently legal in 37 states.
An opinion poll published this week showed New Jersey voters deeply divided on the issue, largely opposing lifting the death penalty outright and backing execution for the most violent murders.
But the study, by Quinnipiac University, also showed a majority preferred to see most murderers given life sentences without parole rather than being executed.
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