TRENTON - The State Senate voted today to abolish the death penalty, moving New Jersey a big step closer to becoming the first state to end capital punishment since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the ultimate punishment in 1976.

"New Jersey can become a leader and an inspiration to other states," said State Sen. Robert Martin, a Republican from North Jersey who joined Democrats in seeking to abolish the death penalty.

Legislators in the Democratic-controlled Senate voted 21-16 to end capital punishment. Four Republicans joined with Democrats to provide the majority; two Democrats joined Republican in opposition.

Two urban Democrats - Sens. Sharpe James and Ronald Rice - abstained.

The measure, which would replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole, will be up for a vote in the Democratic-controlled General Assembly on Thursday. If it passes there, as appears likely, Gov. Corzine, a Democrat,  has pledged to sign the repeal into law.

Before the vote, advocates of abolition raised a series of practical and moral arguments against the death penalty. They asserted that the punishment existed on paper only, noting that New Jersey reinstated the death penalty in 1982 but hasn't executed anyone since 1963.

"We're not going to use it. We shouldn't use it. Let's end it now," said Sen. Raymond Lesniak, a Democrat who joined with Martin to sponsor the repeal.

Republican Sen. Gerald S. Cardinale, meanwhile, said the legislature should amend the death penalty but keep it in place for the "worst of the worst."