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People v. Harris (Challenging New York’s death penalty statute)

At issue in this case was whether the New York death penalty statute was constitutional and whether a plea bargaining provision of the statute violated the right to trial by jury. In May 1998, Darrel K. Harris was found guilty of six counts of first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder and second-degree criminal possession of a weapon. Harris was sentenced to death under a death-penalty statute that the New York Legislature restored in 1995. He then filed a direct appeal, arguing that the statute under which he was sentenced was unconstitutional under Matter of Hynes v. Tomei (92 NY 2d 613) because it contained a provision that had the capacity to coerce guilty pleas by allowing a death-eligible defendant to plead guilty and secure life imprisonment instead of the death penalty. The provision operates to penalize those who opt for trial and, in this way, impermissibly burdens the right to trial by jury.

On Nov. 21, 2000, the NYCLU filed an amicus brief that called upon the Court of Appeals to suspend the execution of any defendant with an affirmed death sentence until the Court has had the opportunity to collect and analyze statewide information concerning the fair administration of the death penalty. The NYCLU brief premised its request on provisions of the statute that require the Court of Appeals to review every death sentence and to determine, before approving the execution of any defendant, “whether the sentence of death is excessive or disproportionate to the penalty imposed in similar cases considering both the crime and the defendant.” In addition, the NYCLU joined in a separate brief submitted by Professor Anthony Amsterdam contending that the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the New York State Constitution and in a separate brief submitted by the Bar Association of the City of New York arguing that the death penalty violates federal due process guarantees. On July 9, 2002, the Court of Appeals issued a decision affirming the defendant’s conviction but vacating the death sentence.

The Court ruled that this particular death sentence was invalid because it had been entered while certain plea bargaining provisions that subsequently were voided were still in effect. (Those provisions were voided in Hynes v. Tomei, an earlier case in which the NYCLU appeared as amicus curiae.) The Court of Appeals, which remanded the case for new sentencing proceedings, expressly stated that it was deferring for another case consideration of the constitutionality of the death penalty and of the concerns about the fair operation of the statute. 

New York Court of Appeals, Index No. 80, Kings County Indictment No. 15265/96 (amicus)

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