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Friday, July 21, 2006

N.J. Rethinks Death Penalty

This article ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Thursday, July 20, 2006.

In N.J., pros and cons on death penalty

A man wrongfully convicted and the daughter of murdered parents testified.


By Joel Bewley
Inquirer Staff Writer


When Larry Peterson starts to get bitter about the 18 years he wrongfully spent in prison for rape and murder, he remembers that the state asked jurors to have him executed.


Then he is thankful the mistake could be corrected.

"But if you take a life," he told New Jersey's Death Penalty Study Commission yesterday in Trenton, "you can't turn around and correct the wrong that has been done."

The commission was created by the Legislature, which voted in January to halt executions while the fairness and costs of imposing the death penalty were examined. The commission's report to lawmakers is due Nov. 15.


Lawyer Barry Scheck, codirector of the Innocence Project in New York, said the state's law allowing execution had been adopted during the scientific dark ages.


"It was a different era then," he said. "We are now in the DNA era."


Nationwide, 182 post-conviction exonerations have been based on DNA testing, said Scheck, who worked on Peterson's case.


Five who were freed had pleaded guilty to avoid facing execution, and 14 were on death row.
"It's ridiculous, in a way, to assume that mistakes will not be made," Scheck said. "We have demonstrated that there is a lot of error in the system."


Peterson spent 10 years fighting to have biological samples from the 1987 Pemberton Township crime scene undergo DNA testing, which was not in use in New Jersey when he was convicted.
None of the skin, blood, semen or hair samples matched those of Peterson, 55, who had been sentenced to at least 40 years in prison.


The charges against him were dropped in May when prosecutors concluded that the testimony of three witnesses who said Peterson had confessed to the crime would not hold up during a retrial.


One of the witnesses admitted that he had fabricated the story.


New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty released a report yesterday on Peterson and 24 others convicted in New Jersey of rapes and murders that they did not commit.
Combined, they spent 228 years behind bars before being exonerated.


The report listed eight causes of wrongful convictions found in the cases: eyewitness error, false testimony, false confessions, prosecutorial and police misconduct, lawyer incompetence, crime lab incompetence, presumption of guilt, and a focus on winning instead of seeking justice.
The debate over capital punishment in New Jersey is not considered as urgent as in states where inmates with death sentences are being executed.


In 1982, New Jersey reimposed its death penalty statute after a decade-long ban. The state has not put anyone to death in 43 years.


New Jersey's death row houses 10 prisoners, all men ages 29 to 76. Six are black, and four are white.


Sharon Hazard-Johnson, whose parents were murdered five years ago by New Jersey death-row inmate Brian Wakefield, told the commission that she believed that it was "most likely impossible for an innocent person to be charged with a capital offense."


Wakefield was convicted of killing her parents during a midday burglary of their Pleasantville home. He set their bodies and house on fire before leaving in their car.


She said her family wanted Wakefield executed for the crime, and was concerned that the commission was stacked with death-penalty opponents.


Peterson told the commission that life in prison without parole was worse punishment than being put to death.


"Execution is the easy way out," he said. "Life in prison is hell every day."


Celeste Fitzgerald, head of New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said polls indicated that most state residents oppose execution.


Death Penalty, State by State


States with the death penalty
Alabama Arizona Arkansas California
Colorado Connecticut Delaware Florida
Georgia Idaho Illinois* Indiana
Kansas Kentucky Louisiana Maryland*
Mississippi Missouri Montana Nebraska
Nevada New Hampshire New Jersey* New Mexico
New York* North Carolina Ohio Oklahoma
Oregon Pennsylvania S. Carolina South Dakota
Tennessee Texas Utah Virginia
Washington Wyoming
Also: U.S. government and U.S. military


*Illinois: After 25 years in which 13 innocent men were freed from the state's death row, Gov. George H. Ryan ordered a moratorium on executions and commuted all death sentences in 2003. Maryland: Gov. Parris N. Glendening halted executions by executive order on May 9, 2002. His successor, Gov. Robert Ehrlich, resumed executions in 2004. New Jersey:The State Senate and then-Gov. Richard J. Codey approved a one-year moratorium on executions in January, making the state the first to pass a moratorium legislatively rather than by executive order. The state has not executed anyone since 1963. New York: Its law was declared unconstitutional by state appeals court in 2004.


States without the death penalty
Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine,

Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota
Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, Wisconsin
Also: District of Columbia

SOURCE: Death Penalty Information Center


Contact staff writer Joel Bewley at 609-261-0900 or jbewley@phillynews.com.

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