TRENTON, N.J., USA (AP) — Gov. Jon S. Corzine signed into law Monday a measure that abolishes the death penalty, making New Jersey the first state in more than four decades to reject capital punishment.
The bill, approved last week by the state's Assembly and Senate, replaces the death sentence with life in prison without parole.
"This is a day of progress for us and for the millions of people across our nation and around the globe who reject the death penalty as a moral or practical response to the grievous, even heinous, crime of murder," Corzine said.The nation has executed 1,099 people since the U.S. Supreme Court reauthorized the death penalty in 1976. In 1999, 98 people were executed, the most since 1976; last year 53 people were executed, the lowest since 1996.
James: As someone who as opposed the death penalty for years, I am rejoicing today. One of the main pillars of Buddhism is the concept of non-violence. Yes these criminals must be isolated from society because of their choices by spending life in prison without the possibility of parole. However, executing them lowers our collective consciousness to the level of these killers and other criminals and we lose our innocence and peace as a society. In addition, the person who's job it is to execute the prisoner faces their own suffering. You can not engage in killing without losing a certain degree of peace. I can't imagine having to be the executioner and face the terrible dreams that must come with the job. We become desensitized to the very violence we are trying to prevent by killing these offenders. It is up to us to rise above the violence and break the cycle of suffering.
I feel deep sadness for the families who have lost loved ones and for the victims who have suffered immensely from the crimes of these individuals. I have compassion for their suffering and cry with them. That being said, I do not think that exacting revenge helps them heal. I say this because killing these criminals doesn't do anything to bring those loved ones back from the dead. It would seem to me that a person embraces more suffering than happiness by taking joy from watching one be executed. After the execution the criminal is gone but they still haven't dealt with their grief and anger which leaves one feeling hollow inside. Anger prevents us from healing and letting go of the chains that keep us imprisoned. How ironic that the victims and their families end up in a sort of prison themselves by clinging to their anger and bitterness. Anger shackles them (just as it does all of us) and the angrier they (and we) become the tighter the chains dig in.
It reminds me of a great story told by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh which I have mentioned here before. Imagine your house is set on fire by an arsonist, you escape but instead of trying to put out the flames you chase after the criminal fueled by anger and a blinding lust for revenge. You run and run and perhaps you catch the person who did this but in the mean time your house has burned down. The point being that holding resentment and anger in our hearts slowly kills us (literally). We know that all things are connected and medicine has proved that elevated stress levels (which occur from extreme anger and anxiety) can shorten ones life. Anger can build and build until often it is released through violence and by committing violence we have turned into the person that we hated so deeply in the first place.
How can we convince others that killing is wrong by killing people?
The very real chance of executing an innocent person is another big reason why we shouldn't have a death penalty. There are many, many cases of people who have been proven innocent through DNA testing but often only after spending decades of their lives in prisons. It seems quite likely that there have indeed been those wrongfully executed.
Also, the Buddhist principle of impermanence implies that all people have the capacity to transform themselves and we must allow these criminals the possibility of redemption. Perhaps the criminal kept alive could one day write books and give interviews/speeches to help others avoid a life of crime. The example of Stanley "Tookie" Williams comes to mind.
A reformed gang member who committed murder but then wrote books to keep kids out of gangs and help them avoid the terrible choices that he made. Instead we executed him and in doing so lost a credible voice in preventing future crime and that is our burden to carry. We were so consumed with our anger and lust for revenge that it blinded us to the greater good that was unfolding. Allowing the criminal life in prison gives them a lot of time to think about what they have done and think of ways to redeem him/herself. We just never know what benefits change can bring and by executing someone we take that possibility not only away from the families and the offender but also from society as a whole.
While I haven't faced the tragedy of losing a loved one to murder or watched a family member suffer from the pain of being the victim of other heinous crimes, I do know that eventual forgiveness and acceptance is the key to healing.
I hope that I never have to face such a terrible choice but I would hope that through meditating upon compassion and forgiveness that I would be able to let go of such horrible anger and pain. I have told my family that should I be killed that I do not want them to advocate the death penalty for the criminal.
It is time to focus on working toward getting to the roots of violence and therefore help reduce it rather than perpetuate it.
~Peace to all beings~