24 August 2005 :a legislative committee rejected a bill aimed at reinstating the state's death penalty, which a court had suspended last year.
"The first time I voted for the death penalty, I thought of the law as majestic and that there was very little chance of a mistake," said Assemblyman Joseph R. Lentol (D), who lead the committee that rejected the bill. "Then you grow up. Look at the DNA evidence -- you realize that people can make terrible mistakes."
It is a sentiment heard with increasing vehemence across the nation. As crime rates have plummeted, and DNA evidence has revealed that innocent men have been sentenced to die, capital punishment seems to resonate less with voters. Judges and juries handed out 50 percent fewer death sentences last year than 10 years ago.
National attention now fixes less on horrific crimes than on wrongful convictions. Several dozen death row inmates have been freed nationwide after evidence -- usually DNA -- proved their innocence.
Thirty-seven states still use capital punishment. But two successive governors of Illinois have imposed a moratorium on executions in that state. In Kansas, the state Supreme Court struck down the death penalty earlier this year, ruling that the law forced jurors -- when all evidence was equal -- to choose capital punishment over life in prison. In New Jersey, the top state court has also imposed a moratorium.
In the past year, the US Supreme Court has ruled that the government cannot execute juveniles and the mentally retarded.
"The trend line on the death penalty is headed down," said Richard C. Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. "DNA has given people pause -- there's less certainty and less polarization. No one wants to execute an innocent person."
At the federal level, however, the Clinton and Bush administrations have greatly expanded the potential use of capital punishment for some drug and terrorism crimes. And then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft directed his prosecutors to seek the death penalty in many cases, sometimes overruling local prosecutors who had decided against it.
In New York, the state's highest court struck down the death penalty last summer on what appeared to be a technicality. Gov. George E. Pataki (R), who rode the death penalty issue to the governor's residence a decade ago, promised a quick legislative fix. The Republican-controlled state Senate overwhelming approved a new capital punishment bill. But the Democratic-controlled Assembly killed the legislation in an 11-to-7 committee vote.