Chairman Howard and distinguished Members of the Commission,


Thank you for your service to the people of New Jersey


My name is Celeste Fitzgerald and I am the director and a founding member of New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.  Our 10,000 members and more than 200 supporting organizations represent the views of hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyans


Over the last seven years I have watched public opinion on the death penalty almost completely reverse itself. 


One after another I have watched death penalty supporters change their minds or join us to say it’s simply not worth it. 


I have watched victims’ family members conclude that the system they believed in has instead irreparably hurt them, and members of law enforcement say it has made their jobs harder. 


I have seen editorial page after editorial page – from every region of the State – articulate the many reasons why New Jersey would be better off without the death penalty. 


I have seen more and more of our elected representatives – from both parties – acknowledge the failings of the death penalty and fight to persuade our State to replace it with life without parole. 


Perhaps most importantly, I have watched all of these people come together and speak up in greater numbers than ever before to say that they do not want this policy to continue. 


Our supporters have taken days off to attend these hearings, while others have followed them closely over the course of your study.  Their devotion to consigning executions to our State’s history books is a clear indication of a dramatic evolution.  This Commission should take note of their numbers, their passion, their diversity of perspectives, and the unanimity of their conclusions.


There can no longer be any doubt that New Jersey’s death penalty is broken.  For a quarter of a century, the people of our state have tried, many with the very best of intentions, to justify our attachment to capital punishment.  Those efforts have failed.


Some have claimed that it was necessary to deter and looked to flawed studies to prove it. 


Some have looked the other way when faced with overwhelming evidence that the death penalty is arbitrarily and unfairly applied.


Others have convinced themselves that the criminal justice system always gets it right – and yet innocent men and women have lost decades of their lives behind bars at the hands of our human frailties.


Some have argued that we need the death penalty to keep us safe, yet offered no credible proof that it is actually necessary.  Meanwhile, the death penalty has clogged our courts and distracted our attention. 


Others have stated that our citizens need the death penalty to restore their faith in the criminal justice system, yet the long capital process has shattered the people’s faith and hurt the families who were promised a myth of healing through executions.


In the new era of DNA, life without parole, and the rising cries of victims’ families, the people of New Jersey are done clinging to justifications, misperceptions, and half-truths. 


With this moratorium, our citizens have given you a mandate to confront, once and for all, what the death penalty actually does to us in real life. 


The evidence is overwhelming.  The death penalty has failed the people of New Jersey on every count – and myth after myth about the death penalty has been shattered in this hearing room.


The flaws that have been presented to you have covered everything from confused jurors to county variability, from high costs to high reversals, and more.   I urge you to consider the gravity of all of it – and especially the gravity of it all together - weighing down the death penalty until it is literally collapsing under the weight of its own problems.


BUT – even if you accept merely an iota of the evidence that has come before you, you must recognize that something is terribly wrong. 


If you believe nothing else, you now know that the death penalty puts victims’ families through sheer hell.  After the testimony of the many victims’ advocates and homicide survivors who came before you, you simply cannot still believe that the death penalty takes care of victims’ families. 


And if you believe nothing else, you cannot still believe that human beings are absolutely perfectly right 100% of the time. 


Jennifer Thompson, a victim of rape, looked you in the eyes and told you that even with her very best intentions and those of the police, the prosecutors, the juries, and the judges, one small mistake became a colossal nightmare for an innocent man. 


Larry Peterson sat here and told you that he was sent to prison – in a capital murder case – for a crime he did not commit – right here in this State. 


Still, New Jersey can be very proud – we have done our best to do it better.  Our lawyers don’t sleep through trials.  We are not Texas, or Florida, or Alabama.  We make mistakes, but we try.


But, for all the time and care we take, we are still human; we still risk error, arbitrariness, and unevenness. 


The question before you, collectively, is what to do about it.


On this critical point, let me say this.  No matter how much you might try to repair it, our death penalty system will continue to fail.


We must also be clear about what this study is about.  This is not about the death penalty vs. letting killers go free. 


The question before you is whether there is an alternative to the death penalty that is stronger, fairer, and more certain – an alternative that is more consistent with our evolving standards of decency and more compassionate to those who have lost a loved one.  


The answer is yes. 


The death penalty must be ended and it must be replaced by the punishment of life without the possibility of parole. 


In addition, nearly all of the homicide survivors have told you that New Jersey should be doing more for them. 


There is a gross lack of funding for organizations that care for homicide survivors.  The non-profits that directly serve this community are having trouble keeping their doors open.  Please take extra care to share this piece of the puzzle with the Legislature and the Governor.  They need to hear what you’ve learned, and homicide survivors need you to tell them. 


I urge you to write a detailed and comprehensive report on all that you’ve learned about the death penalty.  I respectfully urge that you recommend that the Legislature and the Governor replace the death penalty with life without parole, with restitution to victims’ families. 


You should also recommend providing funds in the budget that would go specifically to non-profit organizations that are serving the needs of homicide survivors.


New Jersey has the opportunity to be the first state in the modern era to end the death penalty. We can do so in a way that provides both a stronger and more certain punishment for offenders and addresses aggressively the needs of families touched by murder. 


This is a unique and wonderful moment in our state’s history.  I urge you to seize it. 


Thank you.