New Jersey lawmakers approved legislation this week to abolish the death penalty, poising the state to become the first in the nation since 1965 to repeal capital punishment.
The state General Assembly, which is controlled by Democrats, voted 44 to 36 on Thursday to repeal the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without parole. The decision comes just days after the state Senate approved the abolition bill, 21 to 16, on Monday.
Gov. Jon S. Corzine has pledged to sign the bill, which would grant reprieve for the state's eight inmates on death row, within a week.
"We would be better served as a society by having a clear and certain outcome for individuals who carry out heinous crimes. And that's what I think we are doing — making certain that individuals will be in prison without any possibility of parole," said Corzine at a news conference in Trenton, N.J.
The abolition bill was introduced in November after a special state commission concluded earlier this year that the death penalty was more costly to the state than life in prison, did not effectively prevent violent crime, and could lead to innocent people being executed.
In its report, the commission wrote that the death penalty "is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency."
Some Republicans had opposed the ban, arguing that capital punishment should still be enforced for those who murder law-enforcement officials, rape and murder children, and for terrorists. Democrats, who control both houses, rejected the idea.
"It's time New Jersey got out of the execution business," said Assemblyman Wilfredo Caraballo, a Democrat who approved the legislation. "Capital punishment is costly, discriminatory, immoral and barbaric. We're a better state than one that puts people to death."
Opponents of the death penalty hailed the Garden State's move as a small step toward a nationwide ban on capital punishment and hope that the thirty-seven states with death penalty laws will follow suit.
The head of Amnesty International for the United States, Larry Cox, referred to the decision as "a harbinger of things to come."
"New Jersey stands to embolden lawmakers who were as fearful of eliminating capital punishment as they were of keeping it," Cox said in a statement Thursday.
"Lawmakers across the country are realizing that capital punishment is permanently flawed, and the public is increasingly wary of a system that holds the very real possibility of executing the innocent."
Many law experts, however, say a nationwide abolition of capital punishment is a long way in coming. They say they don't expect a death penalty ban among states with active death penalty laws such as Texas or Virginia, or those states with large death row populations, such as California or Florida.
"I don't think this is the beginning of legislative abolition. It may be the beginning of the beginning of legislative reconsideration," David Dow, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center who also represents Death Row inmates, told the Chicago Tribune.
Bills to abolish the death penalty in three states were recently approved but none have advanced further than the Colorado House committee, the Montana Senate and the New Mexico House.
Currently, there is a moratorium on executions while the U.S. Supreme Court considers the question of whether lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. A decision is expected next year.
The United Nations is expected to endorse a decision to place a halt on executions worldwide when the General Assembly convenes on Dec. 18 in New York.
In the 1976 landmark ruling, the Supreme Court lifted the ban on executions. New Jersey reinstated the death penalty in 1982 although it has not executed anyone since 1963.
An opinion poll published two days before the Assembly vote showed a sharp division among New Jersey voters regarding the death penalty.
The Quinnipiac University poll found 53 percent oppose ending the death penalty and 39 percent support the ban. But when given the option of life in prison without parole, only 39 percent supported execution while 52 percent preferred life in prison without parole for people convicted of first-degree murder.
But by a 78 percent to 18 percent margin, a clear majority of New Jersey voters favored the death penalty for serial killers and child killers.
"People want justice, not revenge," said Clay F. Richards, the Quinnipiac institute's assistant director. People didn't trust life penalty when it was first introduced years ago "because they saw so many murderers being paroled," he added.
"A life without parole sentence for killers right from the start would keep society safe, hold killers responsible for their brutal and depraved acts," read a letter sent by family members of 62 murder victims to lawmakers in late November, urging passage of the ban.
In the letter, the family members emphasized how the lengthy process of capital punishment placed them in agony and left them in a limbo that often resulted in a life penalty.
Once signed by the governor, the bill gives inmates who are sentenced to death 60 days to waive appeals and petition to be sentenced to life in prison without parole. If such a petition is not made, inmates would still remain under the death sentence but would likely never face execution because the state's capital punishment statute will be repealed.
But parents of one murder victim, whose offender sits on death row, urged the state Legislator to not strike down the death penalty. The murder of their 7-year-old daughter Megan Kanka by sex offender Jesse Timmendequas in 1994 gave rise to Megan's Law, which requires public notification when a convicted sex offender moves into a neighborhood.