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In Death Penalty Brief, NYCLU Calls Upon New York Court Of Appeals To Block All Executions

In a brief filed in the case of the first death sentence under New York’s 1995 death-penalty statute, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) has called upon the New York Court of Appeals to block all executions until the Court has fulfilled its statutory duty to assure that the death-penalty statute is being fairly administered. This brief will be before the Court of Appeals on Monday when its hears arguments in Albany in the case of New York v. Harris. The NYCLU will be present for the argument.

New York’s death-penalty law requires that the Court of Appeals review every death sentence and determine, before approving an execution, that the death-penalty law is not operating in an arbitrary or racially biased manner and that the sentence of death is fair compared to similar cases. In its brief the NYCLU points out that the Court has yet to undertake any effort to assess the fairness of the operation of the statute and contends there is such great potential for serious unfairness that it is “imperative” the Court not permit any execution until it has had the chance to complete a detailed analysis of the law’s operation.

In its amicus brief, the NYCLU contends that the complete and unfettered discretion given to prosecutors to select defendants for capital prosecutions is a major deficiency and violates the federal and state Constitutions. “Sixty-two different District Attorneys are making decisions about seeking the death penalty without any known criteria or standard,” the brief notes. “This decentralized and standardless scheme will produce death-notice decisionmaking that will vary arbitrarily from county to county…” The brief points to published statistics that already reveal stark differences in decision making, with a defendant in an upstate county being three times more likely to face a death sentence than one in a downstate one.

The NYCLU also argues that recent national developments raise troubling questions about whether death penalty statues can ever be fair. In this respect, the NYCLU brief points to a June 2000 study of every defendant sentenced to death in the U.S. between 1973 and 1995 that found 68% of the appealed cases were overturned because of questions about fairness or the guilt of the defendant; of the cases overturned, 82% of defendants were not resentenced to death. Second, the brief argues that the use of DNA to exonerate increasing numbers of the wrongfully convicted raises grave questions about whether New York’s law sufficiently minimizes the risk of executing someone who is innocent.

On January 31, 2000, Governor George Ryan of Illinois, a death-penalty supporter, imposed a moratorium on capital punishment after an Illinois inmate was cleared just forty-eight hours before his scheduled execution. Ryan then appointed a special commission to study how his state meted out capital punishment. On April 5, 2002, the Commission issued its report, recommending eighty reforms needed to make the system fairer. It also said that no capital punishment system could ever be devised “that would work perfectly and guarantee absolutely that no innocent person is ever again sentenced to death.” In its brief, the NYCLU noted that New York “has a tragic history of unfair administration of the death penalty — including the reported execution of more innocent persons than any other state in the country between 1905 and 1975.”

The NYCLU amicus brief concludes by requesting that the Court of Appeals, in order to determine that the law is operating in a fair and nonarbitrary manner, do the following: (1) develop guidelines governing the fairness review process; (2) determine what standards, if any, District Attorneys are using to select cases for capital prosecutions; and (3), collect comprehensive data about the administration of the death penalty.

The Harris case is the fourth death-penalty case in which the NYCLU has appeared in the New York Court of Appeals. In 1998 the NYCLU participated as amicus curiae in the case (Hynes v. Tomei) in which the Court invalidated the current death-penalty law’s plea-bargaining provisions. One year earlier the NYCLU directly represented Bronx taxpayers and voters in a challenge (Martinez v. Pataki) to the Governor’s removal of Bronx DA Robert Johnson in one of the first prosecutions under the statute. And in 1977, the NYCLU appeared as amicus curiae in People v. Davis, in which the Court of Appeals invalidated the death-penalty statute that preceded the one at issue in this case.

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