TRENTON, New Jersey (Reuters) - New Jersey on Thursday became the first U.S. state to legislatively abolish the death penalty since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976.
Lawmakers in the Democrat-controlled state Assembly voted by 44 to 36 in favor of a bill to scrap the death penalty, and substitute it with life in prison without the possibility of parole for those found guilty of the most serious crimes.
The vote follows approval by the state Senate on Monday, and the measure is now expected to be signed into law by Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, a foe of capital punishment.
New Jersey, which has not executed anyone since 1963, becomes the 14th state without a death penalty at a time when its use is declining in most of the 36 states — plus the federal government and U.S. military — that retain it.
Nationwide, the United States executed 53 people in 2006, the least in 10 years, and the total is expected to fall further this year. The number of death sentences handed down by the courts fell 60 percent between 1999 and 2006, according to research group the Death Penalty Information Center.
Exonerations of convicts based on DNA testing have fueled concern about the risks of executing innocent people, and doubts persist about the death penalty’s effectiveness as a deterrent to murder and other serious crimes.
The U.S. Supreme Court has imposed an effective moratorium on the death penalty pending its decision, expected by mid-2008, on whether the method used for lethal injection — the means of execution used by all but one state — is legal given the Constitution’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Death penalty opponents say condemned prisoners may be subjected to extreme pain by the cocktail of drugs used to put them to death but they are unable to cry out because one of the drugs causes paralysis.
In New Jersey, a legislative commission in January 2007 recommended abolishing the death penalty, saying there was no clear evidence it deterred the worst crimes, and that it was “inconsistent with evolving standards of decency.”
editing by Michelle Nichols and Todd Eastham