TRENTON - New Jersey took a major step yesterday toward becoming the first state in more than 40 years to abolish the death penalty, a change that is expect to become law within a month.

The state Senate approved a measure to replace the death sentence with life without parole, which would spare the life of a sex offender whose crimes sparked Megan's Law. The bill has the support of the Democrat-controlled Assembly and the Democratic governor.

New Jersey has eight men on death row and hasn't executed anyone since 1963. It reinstated the death penalty in 1982, six years after the U.S. Supreme Court allowed states to resume executions.

The last states to abolish the death penalty were Iowa and West Virginia in 1965, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Thirteen states don't have the death penalty.

Among the death-row inmates who would be spared is Jesse Timmendequas, a sex offender convicted of murdering 7-year-old Megan Kanka in 1994. That case sparked a Megan's Law, which requires law-enforcement agencies to notify the public about convicted sex offenders who live in their communities.

Megan's parents, Richard and Maureen Kanka, have sent a letter to legislators urging them to retain the death penalty.

"The inmates currently on death row are the worst of the worst in our society, and to offer them the opportunity of life is a disgrace to their victims," they wrote.

The effort to abolish capital punishment in New Jersey stems from a January report by a special state commission. It found that the death penalty was a more expensive sentence than life in prison and has not deterred murder. *