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N.J. court affirms death sentence

He admitted to 2 killings, objected to evidence that was introduced.

NEWARK, N.J. - A divided State Supreme Court yesterday upheld the death sentence for a man who pleaded guilty to murdering a retired Pleasantville couple while robbing their home in 2001.

Brian P. Wakefield, who admitted to stabbing, beating and then setting his victims afire before going on a shopping spree with their money, argued in his appeal that he was sentenced to death because prosecutors were allowed to provide inflammatory evidence to the jury. He argued that his guilty plea made such evidence unneeded.

The majority of the court rejected his arguments, ruling that presenting the jury with Wakefield's statements to police was relevant because it could show whether the murders were intentional, one of the aggravating factors that a death penalty jury must consider.

Aggravating factors must outweigh mitigating factors to reach a death penalty verdict. In Wakefield's death-penalty trial, his lawyers argued that his upbringing in a home rife with domestic violence, drug abuse and criminal behavior scarred him permanently.

Wakefield, 29, is years away from any possible execution and has several avenues for appeals remaining. He remains on New Jersey's death row with eight other men at the State Prison in Trenton.

Meanwhile, the Legislature is considering abolishing the death penalty and replacing it with life imprisonment without parole. The move has the support of Gov. Corzine and his fellow Democrats, who lead both houses of the Legislature.

A lawyer for Wakefield, Robert A. Seelenfreund, of the state public defender's office, said they were disappointed with the ruling. "We're certainly not ruling out any possible further appeals," Seelenfreund said. "We'll discuss all options with him."

The State Attorney General's office said it was pleased with the decision, which was the mandatory review of Wakefield's 2004 trial.

Wakefield pleaded guilty in the Jan. 18, 2001, slayings of Richard Hazard, 70, and Shirley Hazard, 65.

The 4-2 ruling was written by Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto, who was joined by Chief Justice James R. Zazzali and Justice Jaynee LaVecchia. Justice Barry T. Albin filed a separate concurring opinion.

Justices Virginia A. Long and John W. Wallace filed separate dissenting opinions. Long found that the death penalty verdict should be vacated because other killers who had committed similar crimes got life sentences.

"Wakefield's crimes, execrable as they were, were in fact not 'worse' than those of his comparators, and the personal stories of those in his group were not 'better' than his," Long wrote.

Long also questioned whether it was time for the state's highest court to reconsider the constitutionality of the death penalty. Noting that court approval two decades ago hinged on "evolving standards of decency," Long pointed to eroding support for the sanction in polls, and recent findings by the Legislature's death penalty study commission. The state has not executed anyone since 1963.