Changing Hearts and Minds

March 17, 2008

Changing Hearts and Minds

Spring 2008

Changing Hearts and Minds

New Jersey activists help push through the New Jersey state legislature's vote to abolish the death penalty

by Ron Lajoie

Lorry Post and Abe Bonowitz

Lorry Post, holding a picture of his late daughter, and Abe Bonowitz.

As AIUSA members Abe Bonowitz, Celeste Fitzgerald and Lorry Post watched the vote count creep inexorably up the legislative scoreboard, they knew they were about to witness an outcome they had dedicated their lives to achieving. On Dec. 13, 2007, with a final count of 44-36, New Jersey was on its way to becoming the first state to legislatively abolish the death penalty since the U.S. Supreme Court permitted states to resume executions in 1976. Governor Jon Corzine signed the bill into law four days later.

For the three New Jersey death penalty abolitionists, the repeal was the culmination of an eight-year campaign Post had begun in 1999 when he founded New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (NJADP) as a way to honor the memory of his daughter Lisa, who had been murdered in Georgia a decade earlier. "We've been working for a long, long time to educate the legislators," explains Bonowitz, who worked with NJADP as field manager. "A number of the people who voted for this [bill] were people who voted for the death penalty bill when it was first brought in 1982."

The twofold strategy that Post, Bonowitz, and Fitzgerald-who served as NJADP program director- employed in New Jersey drew on the unusually powerful alliance of police associations and murder victims' groups; it also combined AIUSA's power to mobilize large numbers of members with NJDAP's local outreach to faith and other community groups, ensuring that legislators heard from their constituents. One key to the strategy? Keep it local. "It's the handwritten letter that really conveys meaning and weight to a legislator," says Bonowitz.

Fitzgerald also points to the effectiveness of persistent action that engages all stakeholders. "The most important thing about New Jersey's decision is that it was made following a thorough and exhaustive study by a blue-ribbon commission made up of law enforcement and victims' family members and other prominent New Jerseyans," she says. "This was not an overnight thing. This was a thoughtful, serious, informed decision by a bipartisan legislature."

To arrive at their own convictions about the death penalty, the three New Jersey activists have taken quite different paths. Post's was the most unlikely, at least if you believe the mainstream media, which almost uniformly depicts murder victims' families as pro-death-penalty. He admits he had not given much thought to the death penalty, even after Lisa was killed, until Florida botched the execution by electrocution of Juan Pedro Medina in 1997. Comparing Medina's fate to that of his daughter's murderer, who received a 20-year sentence, Post says he and his wife "saw the injustice."

It was Gary Gilmore's execution by firing squad in 1977, after he demanded his own death, that made Fitzgerald consider the death penalty for the first time. "It disturbed me on a very deep level," she recalls; "that disgust never left me." Bonowitz, however, confesses that he needed convincing. "I went to my first Amnesty meeting and argued with the speaker," he says. "I said, 'An eye for an eye, and I'll pull the switch myself.'" What changed his mind was the "pragmatics" of learning that "we're killing one percent or less [of convicted murderers]."

Since the New Jersey repeal, Post has been hired as executive director of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation and Bonowitz named director of affiliate services for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Fitzgerald remains with NJADP. Each recognizes that while New Jersey was a tremendous victory on the road to final abolition in this country, many miles remain to be traveled, many minds still await change.