Basically, New Jersey lawmakers are considering abolishing the death penalty in the state. Nobody's been executed in New Jersey since 1963. There have been a number of studies that show it costs less to keep an inmate in prison for life than to put them on death row and deal with the appeals process and round the clock prison guard duties.
But here's the interesting thing I learned from that AP article. If the legislature overturns the death penalty, the nine men currently on death row would not automatically be sentenced to life in prison. They'd have to be resentenced under the laws that existed at the time they were convicted. And since there was no life without parole statute when they were convicted, all nine could theoretically be eligible for parole one day.
For my story, I spoke with State Senator Shirley Turner. She's introduced legislation to overturn the death penalty and replace it with a life without parole statute. She says she's not particularly concerned that any of these men would be released.
Most of these guys would be at least 70 years old before they'd be up for parole. And even then, there's no guarantee they'd be released. One of the convicts is wanted for murders in two other states and would have to face sentencing in those states if he were released. They kind of didn't bother with the sentencing once he was sentenced to death in New Jersey. Not much point in sentencing someone to death twice.
Here's an extended version of my interview with Senator Turner.
But if your parents were killed by someone on death row, would you want there to be any chance at all that that man would one day be released?
Sharon Hazard-Johnson's parents were murdered in 2001 by Brian Wakefield. He broke into their home to rob them, but when the Johnsons returned home he killed them and then set the house on fire. He's on death row, and Hazard-Johnson says that's where he belongs until he's executed.
As Senator Turner points out, it's unlikely that her bill will come up for a vote before November. The death penalty's a controversial issue. And even in a fairly liberal state like New Jersey, it's not at all clear how voters would respond to a push to abolish the death penalty. It's an issue that doesn't split straight down partisan lines.
Anyway, let me know what you think of the interviews. I had meant to post them using Odeo so that you could also download them as a podcast, but I'm having some problems with Odeo at the moment. If you click on the file names, you should be directed to esnips, where you can download the mp3 files. Thanks to Peter Chen for suggesting esnips.
I hope to post similar interviews for future stories. I've also got boatloads of unused material from past stories I've worked on, and dreams of turning it into something useful. Of course, that would require actually having the free time to work on this project.