On This Day

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Marty Lederhandler/AP
New York Gov. George Pataki

On This Day: New York Court Overturns Death Penalty Law

June 24, 2011 05:00 AM
by Erin Harris
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.

Court Strikes Down Death Penalty

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.

New York Gov. George Pataki criticized the decision, while state Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno said “could ultimately jeopardize the lives of New Yorkers by placing dangerous, violent criminals back on the streets.”

The Death Penalty in New York

The death penalty law had been enacted on March 7, 1995 under Gov. Pataki, who had been elected the previous year with support for the death penalty as a critical plank in his platform. After using the pens of two slain officers to sign the law, Pataki commented, “This law alone won't stop crime, but it is an important step in the right direction.”

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, Mario Cuomo, strongly objected to the death penalty. Cuomo 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. He had appointed three of the seven judges who voted in the 2004 case.

During Pataki’s 12 years as governor, not one execution was carried out. Four defendants’ death sentences were overturned with the 2004 ruling, including that of Stephen LaValle.

The LaValle ruling was reaffirmed in October 2007 in the case People v. John Taylor, which involved the last New York inmate on death row. The district attorney had tried to overcome the Court of Appeals’ concern about the deadlock provision.

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.

Background: The LaValle and Taylor Crimes

Stephen LaValle had been sentenced to death for the 1997 rape and murder of Cynthia Quinn, a 32-year-old art teacher who was jogging when she encountered LaValle by the side of a road. The reversal of the death penalty sentence against LaValle enraged many in Quinn's hometown of Medford, Long Island.

John B. Taylor and Craig Godineaux were found guilty of five counts of murder in the brutal massacre at a Wendy’s restaurant in Flushing, Queens, on May 24, 2000.

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