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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 following winter, after a series of hearings at which over 150 witnesses testified, the State Assembly wrote a scathing report, The Death Penalty In New York, and declined to pass a “quick fix” of the defective statute, ending, for the present, the state’s 10 year experiment with the death penalty. Although the statute remains on the books it cannot be implemented.
The Court of Appeals has given New Yorkers an unprecedented opportunity to look at the death penalty experiment and decide whether we really want it back. The hearings revealed that our state’s death penalty system was riddled with the same problems as other states:
Consider the facts:
Risk of executing an innocent person
• New York has sent many innocent people to prison for serious crimes they did not commit. Bobby McLaughlin, an innocent man convicted of murder in New York and sentenced to life in prison, put it most powerfully when he said: “If there was a death penalty in New York [when I was convicted], I would now be ashes in an urn in my parents’ living room.” Wrongful convictions continue to occur and and, in spite of systemic obstacles to grant relief to innocent people, lists of exonerees sentenced to long prison terms in New York State continue to grow. The exoneration of these men was made possible by people working outside the appeals system. The purpose of the appellate process is to determine whether a defendant’s trial was fair and in accord with constitutional standards not to rule on guilt or innocence. Innocence Projects get thousands of requests for help each year and can only able to respond to a few of them.
• A report released by the NYS Bar Association has examined 53 wrongful convictions in our state. Fewer than half of these cases hinged on DNA evidence. Human error – manifested in a variety of ways- was the most common factor in these convictions.
• Commissions in both Illinois and Massachusetts studied the death penalty and made dozens of recommendations to reduce the risk of executing the innocent. The Illinois Commission added that even if all 85 of its recommendations were put in place, the risk would not be eliminated completely. Most of these reforms have not been incorporated most of these reforms into New York’s criminal justice system.
Racial and geographic bias
• In New York, those accused of murdering white victims were more than twice as likely to face the death penalty as those who murder black victims, according to the Center for Law and Justice in Albany.
• The law doesn’t apply equally to all New Yorkers. More than half of the state’s death sentences sought in the in the ten years when New York had a functioning death penalty law came from just six counties.
• Data on the race of the victim in all first degree murder cases in New York between 1995 and 2001 was reviewed by The Center for Law and Justice. It found that 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.
Expensive, inefficient and unwanted
• Since New York reinstated the death penalty in 1995, New York taxpayers spent over $200 million pursuing capital cases without a single execution taking place. Seven men were sentenced to death and none had come close to exhausting his appeals. The annual cost of incarcerating someone in prison in New York State has averaged well under $40,000. The cost of lifetime incarceration for all 7 men sentenced to death in New York will be considerably less than the costs of their trials, appeals, and housing on death row.
• Criminal justice systems with the death penalty are much more expensive than those without it. Death penalty cases cost several times as much as others. The death penalty's cost diverts much needed resources from other areas, notably crime prevention and victims' services.
• Yet, the death penalty is not a deterrent. In New York State, crime rates in cities and counties (for example, Rochester) where the death penalty was sought experienced increased crime rates. Meanwhile, the crime rate in Manhattan, where the death penalty has never been sought, has been declining since 1991 – four years before the death penalty was reinstated. No credible study has shown the death penalty reduces violent crime.
• Support for the death penalty in New York has dropped approximately 20% since the early 1990s. Even when no alternatives are offered, death penalty support in New York is among the lowest in the nation. Hundreds of organizations across New York called for a moratorium on executions. “Quick fixes” proposed by some legislators have done nothing to address their concerns about the death penalty’s flaws.
• Since New York passed its death penalty statute in 1995, no defendant in a death penalty case has been able to afford a private attorney. Fortunately, New York State provided for a Capital Defenders Office, staffed by well respected and highly effective attorneys. However, before the 2004 Court of Appeals decision, its budget was slashed and, while the last pending death penalty cases were still unresolved, there were legislative efforts to defund the office. 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 Death Penalty and Mental Illness
In death penalty states, people with severe mental illnesses (such as schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder) are regularly put to death under laws very similar to New York’s. Mentally ill defendants often make poor choices for their defense. Stephen LaValle, sentenced to death in Suffolk County, had vetoed any presentation of mitigating evidence during his trial. It would have shown he'd suffered a terrible childhood, including sexual abuse; that he had attempted suicide; that there had been a psychiatric hospitalization; that he'd been bingeing on crack cocaine the night of the murder. (The Court of Appeals ruled the death penalty statute unconstitutional in LaValle’s case; the ruling had nothing to do with his mental health status.)
Family Members ask legislatures to get rid of the death penalty
• There is something disturbing about the idea of doing to the offender the very same thing he or she is being punished for. Is it possible another mentally ill person would be inhibited from engaging in similar behavior because Andrew Goldstein was arrested, tried, convicted and was on death row? That idea was a proven contradiction.” (Pat Webdale, whose daughter’s murder led to the passage of Kendra’s Law)
• Families of murder victims have mixed opinions about the death penalty. However, even families who support the death penalty in principal have testified that the drawn-out death penalty process is painful for them.
• Marie Verzulli, founder and director of Family and Friends of Homicide Victims (a project of NYADP), has said "I have come to realize that the justice system is centered around the offender, and in death penalty cases, [this] results in handcuffing the victim's family to that same system which promises us "justice and closure."
NYADP believes that victim and survivors, those who have been touched so deeply and personally by violent crime, must be involved in crafting innovative, constructive, and effective ways to reduce violent crime and that the criminal justice system must address their needs and concerns.