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N.J. agency won't fight death-row commutations

The New Jersey Public Defender's Office said yesterday it would not challenge Gov. Corzine's decision to commute the death sentences of eight men now that the state's death penalty has been abolished.

The office had questioned whether Corzine had authority to do that because the penalty of life imprisonment without chance of parole didn't exist when the men committed their crimes. But spokesman Tom Rosenthal said legal research had shown that the governor did have the authority. Corzine commuted the sentences Monday as he signed a law making New Jersey the first state to abolish the death penalty in more than 40 years. Relatives of those killed by the eight had worried that if the commutations were overturned, it could open the door to some eventually getting released on parole.

Rosenthal said federal case law related to the 2003 decision by then-Illinois Gov. George Ryan to commute death sentences of all 167 inmates on that state's death row to life in prison indicated that governors had authority to do so and that Corzine's move would be upheld.

"We wouldn't prevail, so we won't be pursuing that," said Rosenthal, whose office represents the eight men. He said that meant the men who sat on death row would spend the rest of their lives in prison.

- AP