AT FIRST GLANCE, the eight homicidal maniacs whose deaths were delayed appear to be the sole beneficiaries of New Jersey's abolition of the death penalty.

But a closer look reveals that a cancer was removed from a justice system that we all depend on for fair and rational judgments.

The death penalty is as arbitrary, costly and immoral today as it was when the U.S. Supreme Court abolished it 1972. In the 30 years since it's reinstatement, irrefutable DNA evidence has proven that at least 15 death-row inmates were innocent of the offenses for which they were sentenced to death. Scores of others escaped death when appeals showed their convictions or sentencing had been unjust.

Death-penalty advocates say that those exonerations prove that the system works. But it defies logic to believe that not one innocent inmate has slipped through the cracks.

The death penalty is favored by a majority of Americans polled. But their feelings change substantially when they consider the possibility of innocent people dying.

Lawmakers in New Jersey considered that possibility and reached a moral decision:

In matters of life and death, err on the side of life. *