New York Court Overturns Death Penalty Law

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New York Court Overturns Death Penalty Law

Post  Jennie on Wed Jun 25, 2008 12:09 pm

On June 24, 2004, the New York Court of Appeals nullified the 1995 law that brought back the death penalty to New York state, criticizing a "deadlock provision" in the law that violated the state’s constitution.

In People vs. LaValle, the State Court of Appeals in Albany declared the state's capital punishment law unconstitutional, in a 4-3 decision.

The law decreed that if a jury reached deadlock when considering whether to impose the death penalty, the trial judge would be required to implement a sentence that would make the defendant eligible for parole in 20 to 25 years. The court held that this provision may coerce jurors to vote for the death penalty, given that the only alternative was the eventual release of a person charged with murder, and thus violated the state's constitution.

In a later ruling in People v. John Taylor in October 2007, the Court of Appeals re-affirmed its June 2004 decision, despite the fact that the district attorney in the Taylor case anticipated and tried to pre-emptively overcome the Court of Appeals' concern about the deadlock provision.

The death penalty law had been enacted on March 7, 1995, under Governor George E. Pataki, who had won the governorship in 1994 with support for the death penalty as a critical plank in his platform. Pataki was so firm in his support of capital punishment that he removed Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson from the 1996 case of a murdered police officer after Johnson refused to say he would seek the death penalty. Johnson criticized Pataki for publicly calling for the death penalty hours after the murder, without considering the facts of the case.

Pataki's support for the death penalty had proven popular with voters because his Democratic predecessor, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, strongly objected to the death penalty, promised to veto any law that was enacted, and to commute the sentence of anyone who was sentenced to death under a death penalty law enacted over his veto. Cuomo had appointed three of the seven judges who voted in the 2004 case. The only Pataki appointee involved in the ruling was Albert M. Rosenblatt.

During Pataki’s 12 years as Governor of New York, not one execution was carried out. 4 defendants' death sentences were overturned with the 2004 ruling, including that of Stephen LaValle, who had been found guilty of murdering a 32-year old female teacher. He is now serving life in prison without parole.

Although the defect in the 1995 law could be remedied in a new law, the New York State legislature has not seriously debated a re-enactment of a death penalty law since the LaValle decision, and the issue has not been at the core of recent political campaigns.

The day after the law was overturned, The New York Times covered reactions from both sides, saying, "Mr. Pataki yesterday called the ruling disappointing, while Joseph L. Bruno, the Republican Senate majority leader, called it irresponsible, adding that it ‘could ultimately jeopardize the lives of New Yorkers by placing dangerous, violent criminals back on the streets.'" Kevin M. Doyle, the chief capital defender, "called the decision a victory for common sense."

(source: New York Times)
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