ALBANY — New York’s highest court on Tuesday narrowly refused to carve out an exception to its 2004 decision that found the state’s death penalty law unconstitutional, while taking the last inmate off death row.
In a 4-3 decision, the Court of Appeals said the death penalty for [the] defendant… was the result of a “coercive” instruction to the jury that faced choosing a sentence of death or life without parole.
Had the decision in this case gone the other way, there’s no telling what the pressures on the Assembly would have been. Thanks to a tremendously well considered outpouring of public testimony a couple years ago, the Assembly wisely decided not to “fix” the constitutional flaw found in New York’s death penalty law by the Court of Appeals in 2004.
The court was being asked to reconsider its landmark decision in 2004 that invalidated a crucial part of New York death penalty statute. The judges had found that part of the law was unfair to defendants because it required judges to tell jurors that if they deadlocked, the court would sentence the defendant to a parole-eligible life term. Critics said the provision might make jurors more likely to apply the death penalty, rather than risk eventually allowing a murderer back into society.
In the case decided Tuesday, the lower court had sought to avoid that flaw by telling the jury that if they deadlocked the court would decide on sentencing and would “almost certainly impose” a sentence that would keep the defendant in prison for the rest of his life — specifically, a minimum of 175 years.
Prosecutors who won a death sentence in the lower court against John Taylor for the murders of five Wendy’s workers in Queens had argued the lower court judge’s careful instruction avoided the unconstitutional flaw…
“We are ultimately left exactly where we were three years ago: The death penalty sentencing statute is unconstitutional on its face and it is not within our power to save the statute,” the court’s majority wrote in Tuesday’s decision. “The Legislature, mindful of our state’s due process protections, may re-enact a sentencing statute that is free of coercion and is cognizant of a jury’s need to know the consequences of its choice,” wrote Judge Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick for the majority which included Chief Judge Judith Kaye.
But please, New Yorkers, do not take the Assembly for granted.