Does NJ need the death penalty for killers of cops and children?
TRENTON — Nearly a decade after New Jersey abolished the death penalty, a lawmaker says it's time to bring it back.
Assemblyman Ron Dancer, R-Monmouth, is trying to drum up support for his death penalty bill following the recent killing of a 2-year-old Pennsauken boy. His mother's boyfriend, Zachary Tricoche, has been charged with murdering little Jamil Baskerville Jr. after telling him to “put up his hands” to fight after the couple argued over groceries.
Earlier this summer, another 2-year-old was allegedly raped and killed by her mother’s boyfriend. Michael Disporto, 22, of Manahawkin, was charged with first-degree murder and sexual assault.
If convicted, both could face life in prison without the possibility of parole.
But Dancer thinks someone convicted of such a crime deserves more.
“This is the type of case that demands that the death penalty be an option for the courts,” the lawmaker said Friday.
Dancer is not alone. Last year a Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind poll found that 57 percent of state residents favored the death penalty for certain crimes, while 36 percent opposed. Support was strongest among Republicans, whites, men, and Generation Xers, while Democrats, minorities, women and Millennials were mostly opposed.
Thirty states, the federal government and the military have capital punishment as an option.
New Jersey — the birthplace of the electric chair — abolished the death penalty in 2007, becoming the first state in decades to get rid of it through a vote of the legislature. The sentences of the eight inmates on death row at the time were commuted to life in prison without parole.
But even before the vote, the state hadn't executed anyone on death row since 1963, when convict Ralph Hudson was put to death for killing his wife after being let out of prison early for Christmas.
New Jersey also doesn't have any federal death-row inmates, although the U.S. attorney for New Jersey is currently prosecuting a rare capital-punishment case against an accused Newark gangbanger on racketeering and murder charges. It's only the second federal death penalty case in New Jersey in decades.
In the years since Gov. Jon Corzine signed the law overturning the death penalty, lawmakers have tried every year to bring it back.
State Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union, the lawmaker who championed the 2007 law, says those proposals don't stand a chance.
“I can’t foresee the death penalty coming back to New Jersey or being reinstated anywhere where it has already been abolished," Lesniak said Friday.
Why NJ abolished death penalty
A 2007 state commission on the death penalty found "no compelling evidence" that it "rationally serves a legitimate penological intent."
Among the reasons the panel found to do away with the death sentence:
— The risk of executing a single innocent person was not worth the interest in executing any number of guilty people.
— The death penalty was applied disproportionately: Cases with white victims tended to end up on the death penalty track more often, while some counties used the death penalties more than others for similar crimes.
— It cost significantly more to keep an inmate on death row than to imprison one for life.
— And there was "increasing evidence that the death penalty is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency."
Lesniak says what he found most compelling was the testimony of relatives of murder victims, who struggled to find closure during the lengthy appeals process of death penalty cases.
“That process is very harmful and it extends their grief,” Lesniak said.
Communities vs. 'heartless killers'
Supporters of the death penalty, like Dancer, insist death is a deterrent for crimes.
Dancer's bill would single out convicted killers of children and of police and corrections officers, as well as those who killed while committing a terrorist act.
“The hardcore criminals in our neighborhoods lack the respect of our laws and of human life," Dancer said. "In too many communities, blood and death in the streets have become almost daily occurrences. The death penalty can help protect our babies, our children, from heartless killers.”
Lesniak cited the case of Byron Halsey, a Plainfield man who was convicted in 1988 of killing his girlfriend’s 8-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son. He could have been sentenced to death if not for a holdout on the jury, so he got life in prison instead. In 2007 he was released from prison after DNA evidence exonerated him and implicated a witness who testified against him.
"If he had been executed we never would have found out who the real killer was," Lesniak said.
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-438-1015 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.