By TOM HESTER Jr., Associated Press Writer
TRENTON, N.J. - With New Jersey poised to become the first state in four decades to abolish the death penalty, opponents of the practice declared a historic victory and hoped other states would follow suit.
The Assembly voted 44-36 on Thursday to approve the legislation, which passed the Senate on Monday by a 21-16 vote. Gov. Jon S. Corzine said he will sign it within a week.
Supporters hoped New Jersey's move would start a wave of similar legislation. Thirty-seven states have the death penalty, according to the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center.
"New Jersey stands to embolden lawmakers who were as fearful of eliminating capital punishment as they were of keeping it," said Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA. "This is a harbinger of things to come."
Bills to abolish the death penalty were recently approved by a Colorado House committee, the Montana Senate and the New Mexico House. But none have advanced further.
The nation's most recent execution was Sept. 25 in Texas. Since then, executions have been delayed pending a U.S. Supreme Court decision on whether execution by lethal injection violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
New Jersey reinstated the death penalty in 1982, six years after the U.S. Supreme Court allowed states to resume executions, but nobody has been executed in the Garden State since 1963.
New Jersey has been barred from executing anyone under a 2004 court ruling that declared invalid the state's lethal injection procedures.
A special state commission found in January that the death penalty was a more expensive sentence than life in prison, hasn't deterred murder, and could kill innocent people.
The measure would spare eight men on the state's death row, including Jesse Timmendequas, a sex offender who murdered 7-year-old Megan Kanka in 1994.
The case inspired Megan's Law, which requires law enforcement agencies to notify the public about convicted sex offenders living in their communities.
"There is no doubt whatsoever that those criminals now sitting on death row are guilty," said Assemblyman Richard Merkt, a Republican. "Yet their lives are being spared in the name of justice. Tell me then, where is the justice for Megan Kanka and her family?"
Corzine said life in prison without parole offers a more certain outcome than death penalty sentences that come with years of appeals.
"This is an issue of conscience and the responsible administration of justice," he said.
The bill gives the state's death row inmates 60 days to decide whether to waive appeals and be sentenced to life in prison without parole. If such a motion isn't made, the inmates would remain under the death sentence but would likely never be executed.