The Colosseum in Rome is lit to read, “No Justice Without Life,” in 2007 after New Jersey abolished the death penalty.
The Colosseum in Rome is lit to read, “No Justice Without Life,” in 2007 after New Jersey abolished the death penalty.

 From staff reports

Celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the elimination of the death penalty in New Jersey, Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M., and the state’s seven other Catholic bishops not only hailed the law as a victory for the dignity of life but renewed the call to end capital punishment across the nation.

“Our message is simple – every human being is made in the image and likeness of God, who alone is the absolute Lord of life from its beginning until its end (Genesis 1:26-28),” the bishops wrote in a statement issued Dec. 17.

On Dec. 2007, then-Gov. Jon Corzine signed a bill making New Jersey the first in the nation to stop using the death penalty since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the practice in 1976 after a three-year suspension. The death penalty was reinstated in New Jersey in 1982; the last execution in the state took place in 1963.

New Jersey’s Catholic bishops were among those steadfast in supporting the years-long bid to overturn the death penalty, speaking out repeatedly against the practice while urging the need for improvement for the criminal justice system and for a greater social commitment to crime prevention.

Then-Bishop John M. Smith of Trenton’s Diocese testified on behalf of New Jersey’s Catholic bishops at many of the state legislative hearings, calling for an end to the death penalty, saying that though the Church recognizes the rights and duties of the state to punish criminals and protect its citizens from crime, the Church cannot teach respect for life by taking life. 

“We believe that nonlethal means are sufficient to defend and protect peoples’ safety,” he said at the time.

Bishop Smith was among those present at the signing of the bill – an event that drew media from around the metropolitan area, across the nation and abroad. In Rome, the Colosseum was lit to read, “No Justice Without Life.”

Today, with 31 states in the nation still having some form of capital punishment, the state’s bishops continue to call for an end to the practice they say “diminishes us as a society.”

In the most recent statement, the bishops wrote, “We are not blind to the pain caused by crime. We are committed to comforting, assisting and praying for the families and friends of victims. 

“We affirm the state’s duty to punish criminals, to prevent crime and to assist victims. We recognize the need to improve our criminal justice system and to forge a greater societal commitment to justice,” they continued. “However, we believe that society has effective ways to protect itself and to redress injustice without resorting to the use of the death penalty.”