Death Penalty Stalks New York

The death penalty may make a comeback in New York. On Monday, the case of John Taylor goes to the New York State Court of Appeals.

Taylor’s case is an attempt to bypass the LaValle decision which declared New York’s death penalty unconstitutional. In Taylor’s trial, the jury never heard controversial instructions from a judge that might have persuaded them to choose capital punishment. 

Under the 1995 death penalty law,  jurors in capital cases were given two sentencing options: capital punishment or life without parole. Before deliberating, jurors were instructed that if they were deadlocked, the judge was required to impose a sentence of 20 or 25 years to life that included a chance for parole. 

The Court of Appeals ruled that such instructions might persuade jurors to impose the death penalty out of fear a convicted killer would walk the streets again.

In Taylor’s trial, the judge, Steven W. Fisher, indicated parole was not an option. He told jurors if they were deadlocked between capital punishment and life without parole, he would “almost certainly” give Taylor a sentence without parole eligibility for 175 years.

Adding a wrinkle is the fact that the Court of Appeals has two new members Eugene F. Pigott and Theodore T. Jones Jr. who weren’t there when the court’s 4-3 decision effectively overturned the death penalty in New York three years ago.

As Taylor’s defense team points out,the 2004 Court of Appeals decision should keep Taylor from facing the death penalty because to not change the law, but distinguish Taylor as the “first and last person executed under the 1995 law would spawn scandal and invite ridicule.”  Because the judge said he would “almost certainly” give Taylor a sentence without parole,  jurors might have thought parole was an option.

(source: Albany Times Union, 9/9/07)

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