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A Bad Week For the Death Penalty

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December 20, 2007

With three major events this week, the campaign to end capital punishment in the U.S. and throughout the world is moving full steam ahead.

On Monday, New Jersey became the first state to legislatively repeal the death penalty in over 40 years. The bill, which replaces capital punishment with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, passed with bipartisan majorities in the state legislature before it was signed into law by Governor Jon Corzine. At the historic bill signing ceremony, Corzine said he was “eternally grateful” to the ACLU for its commitment to ending the death penalty. Likewise, the ACLU is grateful that New Jersey’s public leaders put politics aside and took a stand for what’s right.

Then on Tuesday, the United Nation’s General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the suspension of the death penalty worldwide. The vote came after two previous attempts to impose a ban on state executions ended in failure. The assembly’s language clearly identifies some of the major problems with the death penalty, stating, “There is no conclusive evidence of the death penalty’s deterrence value” and “any miscarriage or failure of justice in the death penalty’s implementation is irreversible and irreparable.”

The actions of New Jersey’s government and the United Nations send a strong message to the rest of the country – and the world – that capital punishment is an abhorrent practice that has no place in a civilized society. It is ineffective, discriminatory, arbitrary and expensive.

Finally, yesterday the Death Penalty Information Center released its year-end report , which announced that the number of executions in the United States hit a 13-year low in 2007. There were 42 executions this year, down from 53 in 2006 — this is the lowest number since 1994, when 31 people were put to death. The most immediate reason is court cases across the nation challenging the constitutionality of the chemical combination used in lethal injections by all but one of the 36 states that administer the death penalty.

The Supreme Court is expected to decide next spring whether the lethal injection cocktail used by virtually all states constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. But regardless of the state’s method of choice, government executions will always be intolerable. As John Holdridge, Director of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project put it earlier this week, “the death penalty is not only a grossly improper use of government power, but also the ultimate denial of civil liberties.”