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N.J. high court upholds killer's death penalty

Ambrose Harris, 55, was convicted in the death of an artist in Trenton.

NEWARK, N.J. - A unanimous state Supreme Court yesterday upheld the death sentence for Ambrose Harris, ruling that the special circumstances that removed another killer from death row didn't apply to Harris.

The 7-0 decision rejected the latest appeal by Harris, who was found guilty of the 1992 kidnapping, rape and murder of Lower Makefield artist Kristin Huggins, 22, in Trenton. Harris, 55, was sentenced to death in 1996.

The ruling may have little practical effect for Harris, one of eight inmates on death row at New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, because the state could be on the verge of scrapping the death penalty.

The Harris ruling was based on a July 2006 decision in which the state Supreme Court overturned the death sentence for Anthony DiFrisco, who said he was paid $2,500 to shoot a Maplewood pizzeria owner in 1986.

DiFrisco's successful appeal centered on procedural issues involving the type and timing of reviews in capital cases. The ruling determined that DiFrisco's death sentence must be overturned because a majority of justices had voted - at various times and for various reasons - to sentence him to life in prison.

The court did not find the same circumstances existed for Harris. It noted that to find four justices who had voted to overturn his death penalty, Harris had counted one justice twice.

While on death row in 1999, Harris fatally kicked and stomped inmate Robert "Mudman" Simon, 48, a member of the Warlocks biker gang who was convicted of killing a Franklin Township police officer. A jury in 2001 found that Harris acted in self-defense and found him not guilty of murder and manslaughter charges.

On Monday, New Jersey moved closer to becoming the first state to abolish the death penalty since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated it in 1976, after a Senate committee approved replacing capital punishment with life in prison without parole. The full Senate is to consider the bill before the legislative session ends on Jan. 8, and the bill should get a vote by the full Assembly this month. Gov. Corzine, a foe of the death penalty, supports the bill.