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NYCLU To State Lawmakers On The Death Penalty: Let It Die!

The New York Civil Liberties Union is joining with other concerned citizen groups and individuals in demanding that the State Legislature not reinstate New York’s death penalty statute. On June 24, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that the State’s Death Penalty law was unconstitutional. This placed an immediate moratorium on its use and provides a unique opportunity for the State to reevaluate the application of the law to date.

Unfortunately, the State Legislature and Governor George Pataki are considering a “quick fix” through the passage of legislation that corrects the flaws pointed out by the Court. While this might be the expedient political course, it is an irresponsible one.

“Since 1973, at least 114 innocent people have been sentenced to death in the United States, said Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the NYCLU. “New York’s law is full of disparities and is inequitable in its application. On this issue, the State Legislature should do what it often has been accused of doing best — nothing.”

New Yorkers should note that its lawmakers are taking the time to consider reinstating the death penalty even while these more pressing issues go unfulfilled:

  • Its constitutional obligation to pass a state budget in a timely manner.
  • Acting on the court mandated order to provide New York City Schools with “the resources necessary for providing the opportunity for a sound basic education.”
  • Removing from the books the draconian and onerous Rockefeller Drug Laws.

Yet, lawmakers are prepared to act quickly in “fixing” the language of the death penalty.

“Should the legislature simply reinstate the law, it would be shirking its duty to ensure that our laws are based on sound public policy, while at the same time putting innocent lives at risk,” said Ronald Tabak, President of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty.

Added Barry Scheck of The Innocence Project: “New York’s death penalty is a complete waste of time and money. Resources should be spent on protecting innocent victims and identifying those criminals who have actually committed the crime.”

New York’s death penalty law was established in 1995. Since its enactment, public opinion on the death penalty has dramatically changed, with the majority of people now favoring life without parole as a fair and viable option. A 2003 Quinnipiac University poll found that:

  • 66% of registered Democrats in New York prefer a sentence of life without parole, while only 25% prefer the death penalty.
  • 53% of all New Yorkers prefer a sentence of life without parole, while only 38% prefer the death penalty.

“After nearly ten years it is clear that New York’s experiment with capital punishment is a complete failure,” said William Perkins, Deputy Majority Leader of the City Council. “New York’s death penalty law is seriously flawed and is plagued with geographic and racial disparities. In light of this court-imposed moratorium, the Legislature and Governor should yield to the will of the people and leave well enough alone.” Last year, the Council called for a moratorium on the death penalty in a resolution sponsored by Councilman Perkins.

All of the potential problems associated with the death penalty law in 1995 continue and are even more significant today:

  • New Yorkers have invested $170 million in the death penalty, yet no executions were scheduled or carried out. Four death sentences were overturned by the State Court of Appeals and the three remaining inmates on death row were declared ineligible for execution. This taxpayer money could have been used far more productively.
  • Although Upstate New York counties account for approximately 20% of all homicides, they nonetheless account for 65% of all capital prosecutions.
  • Six of the 62 counties in NY account for 56% of all death noticed cases. Since 1995, there were 7 death sentences issued. Three of the 7 were in Suffolk County.
  • The death penalty does not act as a deterrent. Monroe County sought the death penalty six times – the most of any county in New York – yet the city of Rochester has the highest murder rate in the state. In contrast, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office has never sought the death penalty and the murder rate in Manhattan has decreased.
  • Those who murder whites are more than twice as likely to face the death penalty as those who murder blacks.
  • Of the 459 defendants indicted for first degree murder since 1995, 59% were black, 19% were white and 20% Hispanic. Of the 50 defendants where a death notice was filed, 48% were Black, 40% were White and 10% Hispanic.
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