November 28, 2007
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TRENTON — More than 550 New Jersey religious leaders — including 135 from Middlesex, Somerset, Union and Hunterdon counties — are calling on state lawmakers to abolish the death penalty.

The religious leaders from varying faiths made their pleas in two letters delivered Tuesday to all 120 legislators and Gov. Jon S. Corzine. They say the death penalty fails the state legally, morally and economically.

One letter, signed by more than 500 leaders from various faiths, was delivered and organized by New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. The other was signed by the state’s five Roman Catholic bishops, three auxiliary bishops and two Byzantine Catholic bishops and delivered by the New Jersey Catholic Conference.

“We write to you with the sound moral backing of official positions taken by the leadership bodies of our various denominations and faiths,” the larger petition said. “We wish to be clear, however, that our concerns are secular and pragmatic, just as much as they are rooted in our religious traditions. The death penalty is not in the best interests of our state, our justice system, or the safety of our people.”

The exoneration of more than 200 death-row inmates throughout the country led many to sign the larger petition, including Rabbi Arnie Gluck of Temple Beth-El, Hillsborough; the Rev. Charles Cicerale, administrator of St. James Parish, Woodbridge, and many of the Sisters of Mercy in Watchung.

“God help us if we ever were to execute an innocent person,” Gluck said Tuesday. “That requires moral certainty and judicial propriety the likes of which our society is incapable of administering given all the realities of our lives and our world. And there have been so many examples in the last decade alone where it has been proven people on death row have been exonerated. It leaves one in gaping horror at the likelihood that numerous innocent people have been executed in our society.”

Sister Theresina Flannery, one of the many Sisters of Mercy who signed the Alternatives letter, added, “Often the greater percentage on death row are minority people or the poor and uneducated who don’t have correct counsel to present their case.”

Cicerale said his position is influenced by saying Mass monthly at East Jersey State Prison in Rahway.

While there are no death-row inmates there, prisoners often speak of injustice, he said.

“There’s always more to the reason why they’re behind the wall than the court would acknowledge,” Cicerale said. “I just know and have heard of the stories of injustice, especially when it involves the potential extermination of their life.”

Clergy members said that the death penalty does not serve as a deterrent, including the Rev. Susan Veronica Rak of the Unitarian Society in East Brunswick.

“I don’t know that it brings the closure that people think that they are looking for. It seems to be more revenged-based than rehabilitation- and reconciliation-based,” Rak said.

Sister Eileen Smith, another Sister of Mercy, added, “I feel very badly for those who suffer the loss of a loved one, but I don’t believe taking the life of another in any way solves anything.”

The Most Rev. Paul G. Bootkoski, the bishop of Metuchen, co-signed the separate bishops’ statement, which read:

“Because the state of New Jersey has other means to redress the injustice caused by crime and to effectively prevent crime by rendering the one who has committed the offense incapable of doing harm and because we recognize the dignity of all human life, we continue oppose the use of capital punishment vigorously. Life in prison without the possibility of parole is an alternative to the death penalty.”

The clergy’s pleas come as legislators prepare to vote in coming weeks on replacing the death penalty with life in prison without parole. If it did, New Jersey would become the first state to abolish the death penalty since it was reinstated in 1976 by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Legislators will begin to discuss the issue on Monday based on the recommendations released in January by the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission. The bipartisan commission also suggested that savings from repealing the death penalty be used to assist homicide survivors in New Jersey, which also was recommended by the signers of the letter delivered by New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

For a complete list of participating clergy, log on to

The Associated Press contributed to this story.