TRENTON - New Jersey will become the first state in four decades to abolish the death penalty under a measure that lawmakers approved yesterday and that the governor intends to sign within days.

Assembly members voted 44-36 to replace the death sentence with life in prison without parole. The state Senate approved the bill Monday, and Gov. Jon Corzine has said he will sign the bill within a week.

A special state commission found in January that the death penalty was a more expensive sentence than life in prison, that it hasn't deterred murder and that it risks killing an innocent person.

"We would be better-served as a society by having a clear and certain outcome for individuals that carry out heinous crimes," Corzine said. "That's what I think we're doing, making certain that individuals would be imprisoned without any possibility of parole."

The measure would spare eight men on the state's death row, including Jesse Timmendequas, a sex offender convicted of murdering 7-year-old Megan Kanka in 1994. That case sparked Megan's Law, which requires law-enforcement agencies to notify the public about convicted sex offenders living in their communities.

"She was 7-years-old," Richard Kanka said of his daughter on Monday as he urged lawmakers to keep the death penalty. "She was abducted. She was raped. She was strangled. She was suffocated. She was raped post-mortem. Her body was dumped in a park so the perpetrator wouldn't get caught.

"Now if that doesn't constitute gross and heinous, I don't know what you people are thinking," he said.

Marilyn Flax, whose husband, Irving, was kidnapped and murdered in 1989 by death-row inmate John Martini Sr., said she seethes at the thought that Martini will remain alive "while my innocent, loving, adoring husband lies in a grave.

"I feel the system has spit on me, has slapped me and I am fuming," Flax said.

Republicans said that's why they would vote against the bill.

Assemblyman Richard Merkt said the bill was "a victory for murderers and rapists."

"It does not benefit families. It does not benefit New Jersey society. It does not benefit justice," he said.

Senate Republicans had sought to retain the death penalty for those who murder law-enforcement officials, rape and murder children, and terrorists, but the Senate rejected the idea.

Democrats control the Legislature.

Although New Jersey reinstated the death penalty in 1982, six years after the U.S. Supreme Court allowed states to resume executions, no one has been executed in the Garden State since 1963.

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.

New Jersey has been barred from executing anyone under a 2004 court ruling that determined the state had to revise procedures on how the penalty would be imposed. It never did.

Among those who have been executed in New Jersey are Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who was executed in 1936 for the kidnapping and murder of aviator Charles Lindbergh's son.

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.

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 injection violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. *