TRENTON - The New Jersey Legislature gave final approval yesterday to abolish the state's death penalty, a move that Gov. Corzine has pledged to sign into law.

By a vote of 44-36, the Assembly passed the measure to make New Jersey the first state to legislatively end capital punishment since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated it in 1976.

The bill, approved Monday by the state Senate, would replace death sentences with life without parole.

Corzine, a longtime death-penalty opponent, said yesterday he doubted the prospect of execution deterred killers. He also said that capital punishment risked putting innocent people to death.

"There can be no foolproof system," he said.

Moreover, Corzine said, execution has been an empty threat in New Jersey, which last put a killer to death in 1963.

When Corzine signs the bill, expected within a week, New Jersey will become the 14th state to ban capital punishment by law, but the first to do so since the U.S. high court relegalized it.

The Supreme Court overturned all death sentences in the nation in 1972 but four years later laid out rules by which states could reinstate the death penalty. The ruling led states to separate the guilt-or-innocence phase of trials from the punishment phase, holding separate hearings for each.

In contrast to New Jersey, in other states where executions were recently halted, the decisions came after a local court ruling voided the death-penalty law, as in New York, or because a governor imposed a moratorium, as in Illinois.

As lawmakers noted on the floor of the Assembly yesterday, public support for executions has weakened as 15 death-row inmates across the United States have been freed after DNA evidence showed they had been falsely convicted.

Assemblyman Wilfredo Caraballo, a Democrat from Newark and prime sponsor of the legislation, also raised a moral issue.

"Justice does not mean lowering ourselves to the same level as those who would take the lives of our loved ones," he said.

Assemblyman Christopher Bateman, a Republican from Somerset County, joined with Caraballo to serve as a co-prime sponsor. He said that repealing the death penalty would offer mercy to the relatives of murder victims.

Now, he said, they endure decades of appeals without any likely prospect of closure through lethal injection. Repealing the death penalty would produce a system of "justice that is swift and done."

"I think states around this country will follow our lead," Bateman added.

But Assemblyman Richard A. Merkt, one of a series of Republicans who condemned the measure, said he was ashamed that the proposal had made headway.

"This is a bill that benefits criminals," said Merkt, of Morris County. "It benefits, especially, murderers. . . . It does not benefit justice."

Assemblyman Kevin J. O'Toole (R., Essex) noted that a few years ago, the Legislature overwhelmingly amended the death-penalty law to put terrorists to death. "What's happened in five years?" he asked.

The timing of this week's votes, during a lame-duck legislative session that ends Jan. 8, allowed 27 state lawmakers who are retiring or were defeated this fall to vote during their final weeks in office without fear of political consequences.

Nonetheless, Richard C. Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said the New Jersey vote may embolden politicians elsewhere and show them that supporting abolition was not a "scary, lightning-rod" risk.

Dieter said he was struck by how the campaign to repeal the law in New Jersey mustered support from prosecutors and some relatives of the slain.

"That is a new way of addressing the issues that I think will reverberate in other states," said Dieter, whose Washington research group opposes executions. "What tipped the balance in New Jersey was the victims' families and law enforcement."

The movement for abolition also drew the support of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of the state's bishops.

The church's endorsement is especially influential in a state where 44 percent of the population is Catholic, the third-highest proportion among the 50 states.

And as Corzine noted yesterday, 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.

In Pennsylvania, a 234-page report from the American Bar Association concluded in October that the state's capital-punishment system was so flawed as to risk executing the innocent.

However, Gov. Rendell remains a supporter of capital punishment, and he has signed more than 60 death warrants since taking office, though none has been carried out.

More than 225 convicted murderers await lethal injection in Pennsylvania.

In New Jersey, there are only eight people on 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.

After Corzine signs the law, among those to have their sentences changed to life would be Jesse Timmendequas, who raped and killed 7-year-old Megan Kanka in 1994; Sean Kenney (formerly known as Richard Feaster), who killed a Gloucester County gas station attendant with a shotgun in 1993; and Ambrose Harris, who raped and killed a Bucks County artist in 1992.

How They Voted

Assembly members voting to eliminate the death penalty were: Jack Conners (D); Nilsa Cruz-Perez (D); Douglas Fisher (D); Louis Greenwald (D); Joseph Roberts (D); Pamela Lampitt (D); and Brian Rumpf (R).

Voting against the measure were: Francis Bodine (R); John Burzichelli (D); Larry Chatzidakis (R); Herb Conaway (D); Christopher Connors (R); Ronald Dancer (R); Joseph Malone (R); David Mayer (D); and Paul Moriarty (D).

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