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

With most votes for abolition coming from Democrats, the Senate voted, 21-16, to replace the death sentence with life without parole. The Democratic-controlled General Assembly will vote on the measure Thursday.

If passed there, as expected, Democratic Gov. Corzine has pledged to sign the bill into law by the end of the legislative session on Jan. 8.

Before the vote, senators who backed the measure said it would end the possibility that innocent people might be put to death, and spare relatives of murder victims the trauma of years of seemingly endless appeals.

After the Supreme Court permitted states to reinstate capital punishment, New Jersey adopted a redrafted death-penalty law in 1982. It has not executed anyone since 1963, however.

There are only eight men on its death row, half the figure of just seven years ago. New Jersey's liberal Supreme Court has overturned numerous verdicts and systemically narrowed the grounds on which people could be put to death.

"We're not going to use it. We shouldn't use it. Let's end it now," said Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D., Union), a prime sponsor of the proposal.

"New Jersey can become a leader and an inspiration to other states," said Sen. Robert Martin, a Morris County Republican who joined Lesniak as co-prime sponsor.

Among the death-row inmates to be spared would be Jesse Timmendequas, the previously convicted sex offender who lured 7-year-old Megan Kanka into his house by telling her she could see his puppy. Timmendequas then raped and suffocated her with two plastic bags. Her death in 1994 prompted a national wave of Megan's Laws, requiring registration and neighborhood alerts to the presence of sex criminals.

Megan's father, Richard Kanka, appeared before an Assembly committee yesterday to testify in support of capital punishment. "She was suffocated. She was raped postmortem. Her body was dumped on a park," Kanka said of his daughter. "Now if that doesn't constitute gross and heinous, I don't know what you people are thinking."

If New Jersey were to end capital punishment, it would be the first to do it by passing a law. In other states where executions were recently halted, the decision was based on a court ruling, as in New York, or because governors imposed moratoriums, as in Illinois and Maryland.

The movement for abolition drew the support of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, an influential political force that represents the state's bishops. The cause gained momentum early this year after a special New Jersey commission studying the issue voted, 13-1, in favor of ending capital punishment.

"There is increasing evidence that the death penalty is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency," the panel wrote. Among other factors, the commission cited the two U.S. Supreme Court decisions since 2002 that banned execution of retarded or juvenile killers.

Later yesterday, organizations including Amnesty International and the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty applauded the Senate vote.

In Pennsylvania, however, Gov. Rendell remains a supporter of the death penalty. More than 225 convicted murderers await lethal injection in Pennsylvania. The state has executed three killers since 1995, but only after each had dropped his appeals.

In New Jersey, yesterday's measure passed the Democratic-controlled Senate along roughly partisan lines. But four Republicans joined with Democrats to provide the majority, and two Democrats joined Republicans on the losing side.

Two Newark Democrats, Sens. Sharp James and Ronald L. Rice, abstained. On the floor, Rice told his colleagues that the death penalty should not be tossed out, but the appeals process should be accelerated. "Punishment must be swift and certain," he said. "Once it becomes swift and certain, let me assure you it will become a deterrent."

During the hour-long debate, Senate President Richard J. Codey (D., Essex) reminded the panel that he sponsored bringing back the death penalty as an assemblyman two decades ago. The U.S. high court overturned all death sentences in the nation in 1972, but four years later laid out the rules by which states could reintroduce capital punishment.

Codey said he now saw no point in keeping the New Jersey law on the books.

"How can we argue the deterrent effect of the death penalty if, in fact, we have never used it?" Codey asked.

State Sen. Gerald J. Cardinale (R., Bergen) said the death penalty law should be amended, not abolished. Death should be kept for the "worst of the worst," Cardinale said.

Before the vote yesterday, a majority in the Senate rejected a proposal by Sen. Leonard Lance of Hunterdon County, the top Republican in the chamber, to amend the law so it would still apply to killers of police and prison guards, to those who rape children before murdering them, and to terrorists.

Martin said such a measure would tell friends and victims of other murders that somehow their loss was "not as significant or as hurtful."

How They Voted

Senators from the Burlington, Camden and Gloucester areas voting to abolish the death penalty were: John H. Adler (D), Diane B. Allen (R), Wayne R. Bryant (D) and Stephen M. Sweeney (D).

Senators opposing the measure were Martha W. Bark (R), Leonard T. Connors (R), Fred H. Madden (D) and Robert W. Singer (R).

Contact staff writer Craig R. McCoy at 609-989-9016 or cmccoy@phillynews.com.