WASHINGTON – Gov. Jon S. Corzine signed into law Monday a measure that abolishes the death penalty, making New Jersey the first state in more than four decades to reject capital punishment.
The bill, approved last week by the state's Assembly and Senate, replaces the death sentence with life in prison without parole.
"This is a day of progress for us and for the millions of people across our nation and around the globe who reject the death penalty as a moral or practical response to the grievous, even heinous, crime of murder," Corzine said.
The measure spares eight men on the state's death row. On Sunday, Corzine signed orders commuting the sentences of those eight to life in prison without parole.
Among the eight spared is Jesse Timmendequas, a sex offender who murdered 7-year-old Megan Kanka in 1994. The case inspired Megan's Law, which requires law enforcement agencies to notify the public about convicted sex offenders living in their communities.
New Jersey reinstated the death penalty in 1982 -- six years after the U.S. Supreme Court allowed states to resume executions -- but it hasn't executed anyone since 1963.
The state's move is being hailed across the world as a historic victory against capital punishment. Rome plans to shine golden light on the Colosseum in support. Once the arena for deadly gladiator combat and executions, the Colosseum is now a symbol of the fight against the death penalty.
"The rest of America, and for that matter the entire world, is watching what we are doing here today," said Assemblyman Wilfredo Caraballo, a Democrat. "New Jersey is setting a precedent that I'm confident other states will follow."
The bill passed the Legislature largely along party lines, with controlling Democrats supporting the abolition and minority Republicans opposed. Republicans had sought to retain the death penalty for those who murder law enforcement officials, rape and murder children, and terrorists, but Democrats rejected that.
"Sparing the lives of brutal murderers only a week before Christmas will leave a hole in the hearts of surviving family members that will never heal," said Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce, R-Morris.
Richard Kanka, Megan's father, noted Corzine signed the bill exactly 15 years to day that death row inmate Ambrose Harris kidnapped, raped and murdered 22-year-old Lower Makefield, Pa., artist Kristin Huggins in Trenton.
"Just another slap in the face to the victims," Kanka said.
Members of victims' families fought against the law.
"I will never forget how I've been abused by a state and a governor that was supposed to protect the innocent and enforce the laws," said Marilyn Flax, whose husband Irving was abducted and murdered in 1989 by death row inmate John Martini Sr.
The last states to eliminate the death penalty were Iowa and West Virginia in 1965, according to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
The nation has executed 1,099 people since the U.S. Supreme Court reauthorized the death penalty in 1976. In 1999, 98 people were executed, the most since 1976; last year 53 people were executed, the lowest since 1996.
"Justice should have been served," said Sharon Hazard-Johnson, whose parents were killed in their Pleasantville home in 2001 by death row inmate Brian Wakefield. "I think we all know that justice has not been served."
Other states have considered abolishing the death penalty recently, but none has advanced as far as New Jersey.
The nation's last execution was Sept. 25 in Texas. Since then, executions have been delayed pending a U.S. Supreme Court decision on whether execution through lethal injection violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
"The word will travel around the globe that there is a state in the United States of America that was the first to show that life is stronger than death, that love is greater than hatred, and compassion and standing for the dignity of the human person is stronger than the need for revenge," said Sister Helen Prejean, the Roman Catholic nun who wrote "Dead Man Walking."