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NYCLU Hails NY Court Of Appeals Decision That Invalidates The State’s Death Penalty

The New York Civil Liberties Union hails the Court of Appeals decision that, in effect, invalidates New York State’s death penalty. The 4-3 decision of the State’s highest court ruled that the deadlock instruction given to juries improperly coerces them to vote for the death penalty. The Court ruling says, “Under the present statute, the death penalty may not be imposed.”

“This is a vindication for the NYCLU and all opponents to the death penalty,” says Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the NYCLU. “We argued in 1995 that the jury deadlock provision impermissibly pressured jurors. And since New York adopted the death penalty at the beginning of Governor Pataki’s administration, there has been a significant body of evidence that the death penalty is discriminatory based on race and ethnicity. Also, it does not serve as a deterrent to serious crime and too many innocent people have been sentenced to die. It’s time for New York to recognize how seriously flawed the death penalty is and to adopt a moratorium.”

The deadlock instruction is given to jurors at the beginning of deliberations. It tells them that they either must reach a unanimous verdict to impose the death penalty or a unanimous verdict to sentence a defendant to life without parole. Should a jury be split or deadlock, a defendant will face a lesser penalty such as a life sentence with the possibility of parole. Jurors who may be troubled by the death penalty, but also may be concerned about a defendant’s future dangerousness, ultimately feel forced to impose the death penalty. Today’s court ruling invalidates this deadlocked instruction.

Since the death penalty law, as written by New York State Legislature, mandates the jury deadlock instruction, the Court of Appeals ruling should preclude the death penalty for the 4 persons on death row. It also should put a halt to capital punishment in New York State until lawmakers rewrite the statute.

The NYCLU has a long history of opposition to the death penalty, which invariably is applied in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner. We hail the Court’s decision as an important one and a victory for those seeking a more fair and judicious application of the law.

As bold as the spirit of New York, we are the NYCLU.
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