The state senate of New Jersey has voted to replace the death penalty with life imprisonment, a major step toward becoming the first U.S. state in three decades to abolish executions.
New Jersey senators voted 21-16 on Monday to get rid of capital punishment in favor of life without parole for the most serious offenders, and the state's general assembly is set to vote on the issue on Thursday.
With hefty support from New Jersey's Democratic-controlled assembly, the measure also enjoys the backing of Democratic governor Jon Corzine, who has vowed to sign it into law by January if lawmakers decide to pass it.
New Jersey voters largely oppose lifting the death penalty outright, however, backing execution for the most violent murders, according to an opinion poll released Tuesday by Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.
The study showed them opposing the move to ban executions by a majority of 53 to 39 percent. At the same time, however, a majority also preferred a life sentence without parole to a death sentence for first-degree murder.
"New Jersey voters are sharply divided over the death penalty," said pollster Clay Richards of the university, in a report.
"There is no doubt, however, when it comes to the most violent crimes: most voters want death for serial murderers and child killers."
New Jersey has not executed any prisoners since 1963, even though it was one of the states to reinstall the death penalty after a US Supreme Court ruling in 1976 overturned an earlier ban.
"We're not going to use it. We shouldn't use it. Let's end it now," said Senator Raymond Lesniak, a main Democratic sponsor of the text. Republican Senator and co-sponsor Robert Martin added: "New Jersey can become a leader and an inspiration to other states."
Executions are technically legal in 37 US states, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The northeastern state of New Jersey has since 2005 been among nearly two dozen states which have a freeze on administering the death penalty.
"There is increasing evidence that the death penalty is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency," said a special New Jersey commission tasked with examining the issue earlier this year. The panel voted 13-1 in favor of abolishing the death penalty.
Rights groups applauded New Jersey's step toward a ban.
"This is one more example of a general national wave of momentum moving against the death penalty in the US," said Shari Silberstein of Equal Justice USA, a Maryland-based group that opposes capital punishment.
The US Supreme Court on September 25 began deliberating whether lethal injections, the most common method of execution, infringe the US constitution's ban on "cruel and unusual punishment" amid growing controversy over the procedure.
One convict was executed the same day the Supreme Court announced its review, after a Texas court refused to stay open 20 minutes longer to hear the appeal of a man convicted of rape and murder.
However, no other executions have taken place since then as states have adopted an unofficial moratorium while the high court considers the matter.