The New Jersey Assembly voted Thursday to abolish the death penalty, poising the state to become the first since 1965 to repeal capital punishment.
The state Senate already passed the measure, and Gov. Jon Corzine, a death penalty foe, pledged to sign the bill, probably early next week. Those on death row will have their sentences commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Although New Jersey has not had an execution since 1963, the campaign has drawn national attention, in part because it was launched by Lorry Post, the father of a murder victim. Sister Helen Prejean, whose work against the death penalty was dramatized in the film "Dead Man Walking," has made a dozen trips to New Jersey and predicted that other states would follow its lead.
However, recent attempts to abolish the death penalty in Colorado, Montana, Nebraska and New Mexico have faltered, although it seems possible that Maryland, whose governor opposes capital punishment, will go the same route as New Jersey.
Currently, there is a nationwide de facto moratorium on the death penalty, spurred by legal challenges to lethal injection, the method of execution in most states. The Supreme Court will take up the issue in January.
Austin Sarat, a professor of jurisprudence and political science at Amherst College and the author of two books on the death penalty, said New Jersey's action was a sign that the nation was "in a period of national reconsideration of the death penalty." He noted that both death sentences and executions had dropped in recent years.
Sarat predicted executions would be outlawed state by state but acknowledged that it was "likely to be a long road to abolition."
At a news conference in Trenton, N.J., Corzine said, "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."
One of the death row inmates whose life will be spared is Jesse Timmendequas, who was convicted of molesting and murdering 7-year-old Megan Kanka in 1994. That killing led to the passage of Megan's Law, which requires law enforcement agencies to notify the public when convicted sex offenders are living in their neighborhoods.
Megan's father, Richard Kanka, was among those who opposed the legislation. "For you people to sit there and want to repeal this, in this state, is a mistake," he testified at a hearing this year. "Anybody that's on death row belongs there."
But his position was not shared by Post, whose daughter was killed in Georgia. Post's group, New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, was started in a church basement eight years ago. It has grown to 12,000 members and has forged an unusual coalition of clerics, legislators from both parties, families of slaying victims and law enforcement officials, all of whom decided that they wanted a change.
Although some members said they still favored the idea of the death penalty, there was a broad acknowledgment that it was not working in New Jersey. A statewide poll taken this year showed that New Jersey residents, by a margin of 51% to 41%, preferred that inmates received life in prison without the possibility of parole rather than the death penalty.
This week, state Senate President Richard J. Codey, a Democrat, said he had voted for the death penalty law in 1982 because it provided for "exhaustive appeals" to ensure the right person was convicted. But since then, although prosecutors have garnered 60 death sentences, 52 have been reversed and there have been no executions.
"How can I argue the deterrent effect of the death penalty when we haven't had one?" Codey asked at a hearing in Trenton on Monday.
In late November, family members of 62 murder victims sent a letter to legislators urging passage of the abolition bill. The relatives emphasized the personal toll the process had taken on them.
"Capital punishment drags victims' loved ones through an agonizing and lengthy process, holding out the promise of one punishment in the beginning and often resulting in a life sentence in the end anyway," the authors wrote.
"A life without parole sentence for killers right from the start would keep society safe, hold killers responsible for their brutal and depraved acts, and would start as soon as we left the courtroom instead of leaving us in limbo," the family members said.
Edward DeFazio, the district attorney in Hudson County, N.J., who has played a key role in the abolition campaign, said in a letter to legislators that the death penalty had cost the state $250 million, with little to show for it.
"New Jersey citizens have borne the brunt of the costs of those death penalty trials and reversals . . . diverting precious resources that could have made our jobs easier and kept the public safe," he said.