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New York State has a death penalty law, but, for now, it cannot be implemented. In 2004, The Court of Appeals ruled it unconstitutional, revisited and reaffirmed its decision in 2007.
These FAQs describe some of what we would be in for if the legislature were to reinstate the death penalty:
Isn't the death penalty cheaper than life in prison?
NO. It costs a great deal more. All of the studies on the cost of capital punishment conclude it is much more expensive than a system with life sentences as the maximum penalty.
• A study focusing on the cost of the death penalty in Maryland examined 162 capital cases that were prosecuted between 1978 and 1999 and found that seeking the death penalty in those cases cost $186 million more than what those cases would have cost had the death penalty not been sought. At every phase of a case, according to the study, capital murder cases cost more than non-capital murder cases. (Urban Institute, Washington DC, 3/6/2008)
• “The additional cost of confining an inmate to death row, as compared to the maximum security prisons where those sentenced to life without possibility of parole ordinarily serve their sentences, is $90,000 per year per inmate." (California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, June 30, 2008).
• For death penalty cases, the pre-trial and trial level expenses were the most expensive part, 49% of the total cost. The investigation costs for death-sentence cases were about 3 times greater than for non-death cases. The trial costs for death cases were about 16 times greater than for non-death cases ($508,000 for death case; $32,000 for non-death case).” (Kansas: Performance Audit Report: Costs Incurred for Death Penalty Cases: A K-GOAL Audit of the Department of Corrections, December, 2003)
• Total cost of death penalty is 38% greater than total cost of life without parole sentences. (Indiana Criminal Law Study Commission, January 10, 2002)
• Following the reinstatement of the death penalty in New York in 1995, over $200 million was been spent on it. In addition to the funds required to try death penalty cases, the New York Department of Correctional Services spent $1.3 million to construct New York's 12-inmate death row and nearly $300,000 per year to guard the unit. (New York Law Journal, April 30, 2002)
NYADP advocates that money we save by not having a death penalty should be spent on crime prevention programs and victims’ assistance programs, both of which are severely under-funded.
How many death row inmates have been found innocent?
• Over 130 people have been sentenced to death and later found to be innocent. They are the fortunate few who were exonerated. The appeals system in the United States is not set up to review questions of actual innocence, but to determine whether the trial was in accord with constitutional standards of fairness. There is no constitutional bar to the execution of a factually innocent person.
• False confessions, mistaken eyewitness accounts, incompetent counsel and jailhouse snitches are often the cause of an innocent person's conviction. While DNA has saved many innocent lives, most crimes do not have DNA that can be tested.
• In the aftermath of highly publicized crimes, there is pressure to charge and convict someone and mistakes are made. In New York, the five men convicted in the Central Park Jogger Case were found innocent, although they had confessed to the crime. At the time of the crime Donald Trump took out a full-page ad to say that he wished New York had the death penalty for these men. Additional information on exonerated death row inmates can be found at www.innocenceproject.org and http://deathpenaltyinfo.org/innocence-and-death-penalty
How do race and economic status affect a death penalty trial?
• Almost all people accused of death-eligible crimes are impoverished and must rely on court-appointed lawyers to defend them at trial. Minority defendants may be represented by lawyers who are not only incompetent but also openly bigoted. At a minimum, a lack of cultural sensitivity to other ethnic groups may affect their ability to prepare adequately for the case.
• The case of Wilburn Dobbs is one of at least five in Georgia where defense attorneys referred to their own clients during the trial by racial slurs, including "nigger."
• Melvin Wade was sentenced to death in California after being represented by an attorney who used defamatory language against African Americans, including Wade, and who asked that his own client be sentenced to death during the penalty phase of the trial.
• African Americans account for 42% of the USA's current 3,500 death row inmates and about 34% of prisoners executed since 1977. However, the identity of the murder victim that provides the clearest indication that race remains an ingredient of capital sentencing.
• Since 1976, blacks have been six to seven times more likely to be murdered than whites, with the result that blacks and whites are the victims of murder in about equal numbers. Yet, 80% of the over 1100 people put to death in the USA since 1976 were convicted of crimes involving white victims, compared to the 14% who were convicted of killing blacks. (Death Penalty Information Center.)
• Data on the race of the victim in all first degree murder cases in New York between 1995 and 2001 shows that the same disparities affect New York State. Although only 32% of first degree murder cases from 1995 to 2001 involved a white victim, 60% of the cases in which a prosecutor sought the death penalty involved a white victim. In contrast, while 43% of the first degree murder cases involved a black victim, only 36% of the cases in which a prosecutor sought the death penalty involved a black victim. And 24% of cases involved a Hispanic victim, yet only 14% of the cases where the death penalty was sought involved a Hispanic victim. (Excerpted from Amnesty International. Read Amnesty International's report on racism in capital cases, at http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/AMR51/046/2003.)
How does the quality of legal representation affect capital cases?
• Ninety-five % of defendants charged with capital crimes are indigent and cannot afford their own attorney to represent them. They are forced to use inexperienced, underpaid court-appointed attorneys.
• US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg said she has "never seen a death penalty case on appeal before this court in which the defendant was well represented at trial."
• Some defendants in capital cases have been represented by attorneys who were drunk or sleeping during the trial. George McFarland, sentenced to death in 1992, was represented by an attorney who admitted sleeping during parts of the trial: "I'm 72 years old. I customarily take a short nap in the afternoon." The trial judge commented that: "The Constitution says everyone's entitled to the attorney of their choice. The Constitution does not say the lawyer has to be awake." (Excerpted from Amnesty International)
What does religion say about the death penalty?
• Most major religious groups support abolition of the death penalty.
• Supporters of abolition include: American Baptist Churches in the USA, Disciples of Christ, The Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Mennonite Church, Orthodox Church in America, Presbyterian Church USA, Reformed Church in America, Unitarian Universalist Association, United Church of Christ, The United Methodist Church, and the US Catholic Conference.
Is the death penalty a deterrent to violent crime?
• Homicide rates are consistently higher in states and regions with the death penalty than in those without it.
• An overwhelming majority of the nation’s leading criminologists believe the death penalty is not an effective deterrent to crime. Most think that the abolition of the death penalty would not have a significant effect on murder rates and believe that “debates about the death penalty distract Congress and state legislatures from focusing on real solutions to crime problems. (Death Penalty Information Center)
How does a defendant's sexual orientation affect a capital trial?
• "Sending a homosexual to the penitentiary certainly isn't a very bad punishment for a homosexual," the prosecutor told the jury in the sentencing phase of Calvin Burdine's trial. Burdine's attorney did not object. Burdine, a homosexual, was on trial for killing his lover. Burdine's attorney was seen sleeping during parts of the trial and referred to homosexuals as "fairies" and "queers."
• Gay defendants have their sexuality used to portray them as "inhuman" and "predatory." Dick Dieter, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center explains, "There's no legal formula for who gets the death penalty. And anyone who seems outside the bounds of what's acceptable is more likely to end up being executed."
Are most people in favor of the death penalty?
• As evidence of innocence and racial bias in the application of the death penalty come to light, support for the death penalty is steadily falling.
• In fact, a majority of New Yorkers support alternatives to the death penalty. In a poll released by Quinnipiac University in March 2003, 57% of New York residents favor the death penalty compared with 37% who oppose it. But when asked to choose between the death penalty or life without parole, people in New York favor life without parole 53% to 38%.
• Nationally, 48% of Americans favor the death penalty compared with 44% who prefer life without parole, according to the same poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9%.
• In response to growing opposition to the death penalty, several states have ended it or limited its application. New Jersey and New Mexico have abolished it while Maryland has narrowed the conditions in which it can be used.
Does the death penalty bring “closure” to victims?
• Families of murder victims have mixed opinions about the death penalty. However, even families who have supported the death penalty in principal have testified that the drawn-out death penalty process is painful for them and that life without parole is an appropriate alternative.
• Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation and The Journey of Hope are victims' advocacy groups that oppose the death penalty. People who have lost loved ones to murder founded these organizations. They provide support to family members of murder victims. Many of their members tour the country, explaining their opposition to the death penalty.
• The speakers' stories contrast starkly with the myths often used to support the death penalty, such as its supposed cathartic power for victims. After an execution, many victims are left with the same gnawing pain and anger they hoped the execution would ease.The founder of The Journey of Hope, Bill Pelke, explains: "The death penalty has absolutely nothing to do with healing. [It] just continues the cycle of violence and creates more murder victim family members. We become what we hate. We become killers."
Does the U.S. execute mentally retarded people?
• In theory, not any more. But standards of what constitutes mental retardation and qualifications for examiners vary widely.
• The Supreme Court ruled in June 2002 (Atkins v. Virginia) that it was unconstitutional to execute the mentally retarded. Prior to that time, the United States executed 36 people despite evidence of mental retardation. This was in violation of international standards of justice. The United Nations Committee on Crime Prevention and Control recommended in 1988 that "persons suffering from mental retardation or extremely limited mental competence" should not be executed.
(Information excerpted from Amnesty International and the Death Penalty Information Center.)
Does the U.S. execute the severely mentally ill?
• No death penalty statute in the U.S. forbids the execution of the severely mentally ill. The execution of those with mental illness is clearly prohibited by international law. Virtually every country in the world except the U.S. prohibits the execution of people with mental illness. The U.N. safeguards guaranteeing protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty, adopted by the U.N. Economic and Social Council resolution of May 25, 1984, states: ". . . nor shall the death sentence be carried out . . . on persons who have become insane."
• It is unconstitutional to execute someone who is not sane enough at the time of execution to understand what is about to happen and why. However, Charles Singleton was executed by the State of Arkansas on Jan. 6, 2004. He suffered from serious mental illness. He was said to be 'seriously deranged without treatment' and 'arguably incompetent with treatment.' A Federal Appeals court had ruled that the Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment would not be violated if the authorities forcibly administrated antipsychotic medication to Charles Singleton. The court added: "Eligibility for execution is the only unwanted consequence of the medication."
• Kelsey Patterson was executed in Texas on May 18, 2004.Mr. Patterson had long suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, a serious mental illness whose symptoms can include hallucinations, delusions, confused thinking, and altered senses, emotions or behavior. He was first diagnosed with this brain disorder in 1981. (Information excerpted from Amnesty International)
If a criminal doesn’t get the death penalty, won’t s/he be paroled?
49 states (all except Alaska) offer life without the possibility of parole as an alternative to a death sentence. It means exactly what it says.
Do other countries use capital punishment?
• More than two thirds of the world's countries have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice, including Russia, South Africa, all of Western and most of Eastern Europe. Abolition of the death penalty is a requirement for admission to the European Union.
• Since 2005, the United States has been among the “leading” nations in number of executions carried out. Also on this list are: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Sudan.(Information excerpted from the ACLU)
How can I learn more about the death penalty?
The most comprehensive information on the death penalty can be found at The Death Penalty Information Center
Isn’t New York’s death penalty different from other states?
New York's death penalty was reinstated in 1995. In June, 2004, the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, ruled the death penalty statute unconstitutional because of a defective protocol it determined was coercive to jurors. It also ruled that it was up to the state legislature to fix the statute. The statute remains on the books. So far, wisely, the state legislature has declined to pass a “quick fix,” so that the statute cannot now be implemented.
• In 1995,New York established a capital defenders' office for people charged with capital crimes. Work done by the Capital Defenders Office resulted in the 2004 Court of Appeals decision. unconstitutional. Before the decision, funding for this office had been slashed, and, since the decision, the office has been closed. If the death penalty were to be revived in New York there is no guarantee that this office would be adequately funded.
• The Capital Punishment Research Initiative, at SUNY-Albany's School of Criminal Justice, compared New York's death penalty to the death penalty in Illinois. The study identified "aspects of New York's capital punishment law and criminal justice practices that in our view are most urgently in need of attention in light of the Illinois Commission's recommendations." The study compared police and pretrial investigation practices, eligibility for capital punishment, prosecution's selection for capital punishment, imposition of sentence, and funding.
• The study's conclusion reads: "The Illinois Commission labored for two years in producing its 85 recommendations regarding the administration of capital punishment in that state. . . At the conclusion [commission members] . . . observed specifically that: 'the commission was unanimous in the belief that no system, given human nature and frailties, could ever be devised or constructed that would work perfectly and guarantee absolutely that no innocent person is ever again sentenced to death.' This same warning that death penalty systems inevitably expose innocent people to the risk of conviction and execution applies with equal force to New York's capital punishment law."
• Geographical inequities found in death penalty states are also a factor in New York; upstate prosecutors were four times more likely to seek the death penalty than downstate prosecutors.
• Seven men were sentenced to death in New York State since the death penalty was reinstated in 1995. One of the seven, Nicholas McCoy, was sentenced to death in 2000 for the brutal murder of his co-worker, Victoria Peyman. McCoy's mother was a prostitute who strangled his father in the children's bedroom when McCoy was two years old. His first foster father repeatedly beat McCoy because he beat his head against the wall to try to get to sleep.
• Since the New York State Appeals Court ruling that overturned the death penalty in 2004 and the State Assembly's refusal to reinstate it, the U.S. Attorney General asked Federal prosecutors in the state to seek the death penalty in over 10 cases.
• Hundreds of organizations have passed resolutions calling for a moratorium on executions in New York, including the New York City Council, the Albany Common Council, and the councils of eight other cities.