TRENTON — The New Jersey General Assembly approved a bill eliminating capital punishment on Thursday, clearing the way for Gov. Jon S. Corzine to sign the measure as early as Monday.
Mr. Corzine said he would act quickly. “It will be very, very prompt,” he said at a news conference on Thursday. “I’m sure it will be within the next week.”
Once he signs the bill, New Jersey will become the first state in the modern era of capital punishment to repeal the death penalty.
The measure has moved at an unusually fast pace through the Legislature. In the last week, it passed a Senate committee, an Assembly committee and both houses, leading many Republicans to accuse the Democratic leadership of trying to rush the bill through a lame-duck session.
“I am ashamed the Assembly would consider this bill today,” said Assemblyman Richard A. Merkt, a conservative Republican from Randolph.
The voting did not break down exclusively along party lines, however. Three Republicans joined 41 Democrats in the Assembly to pass the bill, 44 to 36. Surprisingly, nine Democrats voted against the measure. On Monday in the Senate, 4 Republicans joined 17 Democrats to muster just enough support to get the 21 votes needed to pass a bill.
“We need to put politics aside,” said Christopher Bateman, a Republican from Somerville. “I think we have an opportunity today to change the course on this very important issue.”
Several state legislatures have tried to overturn their death penalties since 1976, when the United States Supreme Court set the framework for the current system of capital punishment. And while executions have come to a halt by other means — through a moratorium, for example, issued by the governor of Illinois, and a court ruling declaring New York’s penalty unconstitutional — no state legislature has ever flatly outlawed the death penalty.
Once the governor signs the bill, the New Jersey Department of Corrections will begin deciding what to do with the eight men on death row in the New Jersey State Prison here. Under the bill, inmates sentenced to death have 60 days to petition their sentencing courts to commute their sentences to life in prison with no possibility of parole. They also must agree to forego their rights to any further appeals.
If they do not petition the court, their death sentences remain in place. But since the state’s capital punishment statute will be repealed, their sentences will be effectively equivalent to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Some of the most violent death-row inmates — those who are allowed no contact with other inmates — will probably be placed in a unit of the prison that is nearly identical to death row, confined for almost the entire day in a cell measuring 7 feet by 11 feet, correction officials said. The less violent death-row inmates may be moved to the prison’s general population.
The Department of Corrections has said it will take up the matter once Mr. Corzine signs the bill.
Dec. 14, 2007
Jeremy W. Peters