A unanimous state Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the death sentence for Ambrose Harris, ruling that the special circumstances that removed another killer from death row did not apply to Harris. The 7-0 decision rejected the latest appeal by Harris, finding that the inmate could not muster a majority of sitting justices who had sided with him on prior appeals. The ruling, however, may have little practical effect for Harris and the seven other inmates on the state's death row at New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, since New Jersey may be on the verge of scrapping the death penalty.
Harris was represented by the state public defender's office, which had no immediate comment.
The attorney general's office had no immediate comment.
Harris, 55, had been sentenced to death in 1996 for murdering Kristin Huggins, 22, of Lower Makefield, Pa., whom he kidnapped and raped in 1992.
The Harris ruling is based on a July 2006 decision in which the state Supreme Court overturned the death sentence for Anthony DiFrisco, a hit man who said he was paid $2,500 to shoot a Maplewood pizzeria owner in 1986.
DiFrisco's successful appeal centered on complex procedural issues involving the type and timing of reviews afforded in capital cases. The ruling determined that DiFrisco's death sentence must be overturned because a majority of justices had voted _ at various times and for various reasons _ to sentence him to life in prison.
The court did not find the same circumstances existed for Harris. It noted that to find four justices who had voted to overturn his death penalty, Harris essentially counted one justice twice.
While in prison in September 1999, Harris killed a fellow death row inmate, kicking and stomping 48-year-old Robert "Mudman" Simon to death. A jury in 2001 found that Harris acted in self-defense and found him innocent of murder and manslaughter charges.
On Monday, New Jersey moved closer to becoming the first state to abolish the death penalty since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated it in 1976 when a Senate committee approved replacing capital punishment with life in prison without parole. The full Senate is to consider the bill before the legislative session ends on Jan. 8, and the bill should get a vote by the full Assembly this month. Gov. Jon S. Corzine, a death penalty foe, supports the bill.
New Jersey reinstated the death penalty in 1982, but hasn't executed anyone since 1963.