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New Jersey is set to become the first state to legislatively abolish the death penalty since the Supreme Court restored it in the mid-1970s. Opponents of capital punishment hope the state's action may prompt a rethinking of the moral and practical implications of the practice in other states.

New Jersey's Democratic-controlled General Assembly voted 44 to 36 to repeal the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without parole. The action followed a similar vote by the Senate on Monday. Gov. Jon S. Corzine, a Democrat and a death penalty opponent, has said he would sign the legislation.

The repeal bill follows the recommendation of a state commission that reported in January that the death penalty "is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency." But equally persuasive to lawmakers was not saving lives but money -- it costs more to keep a prisoner indefinitely on death row than incarcerated for life.

In some states, governors have blocked executions or state supreme courts have declared effective moratoriums. Several states legislatures -- including in Maryland, Montana, New Mexico and Nebraska -- have debated bills this year to abolish capital punishment, but none so far has succeeded. Only in 2000, in New Hampshire, did the state legislature vote to repeal capital punishment, but the bill was vetoed by then-Gov.Jeanne Shaheen (D).

The U.S. Supreme Court has effectively declared a moratorium on executions since it decided to take up in this term the question of whether lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. In recent decisions, the high court has narrowed the use of capital punishment, ruling that it is unconstitutional to execute the mentally retarded or those who committed crimes as juveniles.

The repeal movement in New Jersey gained ground this year despite solid public support in the state for capital punishment, and over the objections of death penalty supporters who accused lawmakers of rushing the issue through a lame duck session before a new legislature is installed next year.

"It's a rush to judgment" said Robert Blecker, a New York Law School professor and prominent death penalty advocate.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, hailed the New Jersey vote as "a first. But it is coming at a time when there is a reexamination of the death penalty going on." Dieter added, "It does give other legislatures the chance to say, is this working in our state?"

The repeal comes despite the pleas of some high profile victims, such as Richard and Maureen Kanka, whose 7-year-old daughter, Megan, was killed by a repeat sex offender, Jesse K. Timmendequas, who is currently on New Jersey's death row. Megan Kanka's brutal 1994 killing gave rise to "Megan's law," requiring public notification when a convicted sex offender moves into a neighborhood.

Public opinion across the United States still remains solidly in favor of capital punishment, with 62 percent supporting the death penalty for murderers and 32 percent opposed, according to January polling figures by the Pew Research Center in Washington. And in New Jersey, the most recent poll this week released by Quinnipiac University Polling Institute showed that New Jersey residents opposed abolishing the death penalty 53 percent to 39 percent.

Where there is a discernable shift underway -- and what has partly driven the repeal in New Jersey -- is when residents are offered an alternative: the death penalty, or life in prison without parole. Given the choice, New Jersey residents backed life without parole over the death penalty by a nearly identical 52 percent to 39 percent margin.

"We have polls going back 10 years showing New Jerseyans favor the death penalty by about a 10percent margin," said Clay F. Richards, the Quinnipiac institute's assistant director. "The presence of life without parole changes the picture entirely."

"People want justice, not revenge," Richards said. He said when the concept of a life penalty without parole was first introduced some years ago, "people didn't trust it, because they saw so many murderers being paroled."

Besides the new possibility of prisons keeping murderers behind bars for life, repeal advocates also note that advances in DNA evidence has gotten scores of convicted murderers released from death row. And there were botched executions in Florida and Ohio. There has been debate lively in a slew of academic studies about the death penalty's effectiveness as a deterrent to crime. And politicians in some Northeastern states, such as New York and New Jersey, have found that there was no longer much of a political price to pay at the ballot box by being staunchly anti-death penalty.

In New Jersey, an added rationale for death penalty opponents was the simplest: It wasn't being used.

The state's last execution was in 1963. New Jersey reinstated the death penalty in 1982, following the Supreme Court's landmark 1976 ruling that allowed states to carry it out. But since then, the only inmate ever killed on New Jersey's death row was Robert "Mudman" Simon, a white supremacist and murderer who was stomped to death by another death row prisoner, Ambrose Harris, who is facing a death sentence for the 1992 rape and murder of a New Jersey artist.

The eight prisoners now languishing on New Jersey's death row are straight from the headlines of some of the state's most sensational crimes of the 1990s. Besides Harris, there is John Martini, who kidnapped local businessman Irving Flax from his home and shot him three times in the back of the head after receiving $25,000 in ransom money. There is Brian Wakefeld who forced his way into the Atlantic City home of retiree Richard Hazard and his wife Shirley, beat and stabbed them both and set their bodies on fire before going on a spending spree for compact discs, liquor and jewelry with the couple's stolen credit cards.

Flax's widow Marilyn, and the Hazard's daughter, Sharon Hazard-Johnson, testified against the repeal before the study commission, urging that the death penalty actually be implemented.

"What I would like this commission to do is not change the law, but enforce the law," Marilyn Flax told the commission.

In the end, the most compelling case for New Jersey lawmakers was the economic one. Keeping inmates on death row costs the state $72,602 per year for each prisoner. Inmates kept in the general population cost just $40,121 per year each to house.


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