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N.J. Senate to review death row

A life term is more civilized and costs less, a report said.

TRENTON - A Senate committee is poised this week to consider abolishing the death penalty in New Jersey, replacing it with life imprisonment without parole.

The initiative stems from a January report from a special commission appointed by the Legislature. The panel determined that New Jersey's death penalty costs taxpayers more than paying for prisoners to serve life terms, and concluded there was no evidence the death penalty deters murders.

"There is increasing evidence that the death penalty is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency," the report said.

Gov. Corzine favors abolishing the death penalty, as do Democratic leaders of both houses of the Legislature.

"The death penalty simply doesn't work as a deterrent, and the risks and costs involved far outweigh any benefits it may bring to our society," said Sen. Shirley Turner (D., Mercer).

"The fact is, there is no way to guarantee that an innocent man or woman would not be wrongly executed. As a society, we cannot risk the lives of the innocent to exact punishment on those who are guilty."

The state has nine men on death row but has not executed anyone since 1963. A death penalty moratorium was imposed in late 2005, when the law creating the commission was passed.

Republicans plan to fight the legislation.

"It is beyond reprehensible that they are even proposing that cop killers, child rapists and murderers and terrorists will not face the ultimate punishment if they commit their crimes in New Jersey," said Sen. Nicholas Asselta (R., Cumberland.)

Family members of murder victims have decried the report's findings.

Marilyn Flax has recalled phone conversations with John Martini Sr., who was convicted in 1991 of kidnapping Fair Lawn warehouse manager Irving Flax and killing him after getting $25,000 of a $100,000 ransom.

"The last words I heard from my husband, in a piercing, screaming voice, were, 'Give him the money, or he'll kill me,' " she said, adding that allowing Martini to live would be an insult.

"I just think it's a shame that people are going to have to pay year after year to keep these people in prison," said Maureen Kanka, who led a national movement for communities to be notified when sex offenders move nearby after her 7-year-old daughter, Megan, was murdered by a sex offender in 1994.

Turner said money saved by abolishing the death penalty should go toward strengthening programs to help victims' families.

The proposed legislation, scheduled to go before the committee on Thursday, would repeal the death penalty and replace it with life imprisonment with no eligibility for parole. Current death-row inmates would be resentenced to life imprisonment without parole in a maximum security prison.

If lawmakers and Corzine implement the commission's recommendation, New Jersey would become the 13th state without a death penalty. New Jersey was the third state to impose a death-penalty moratorium to study the issue, behind Maryland and Illinois.

"New Jersey has moved beyond the need for punishments based on revenge rather than justice," Turner said. "We are a decent, compassionate people who would rather see the most heinous criminals locked up for eternity than executed."