Support for the death penalty was credited with electing Ed Koch mayor of New York City in 1977 and George Pataki governor in 1994, each in races with Mario Cuomo, a lifelong opponent of capital punishment. Pataki brought the death penalty back to New York State in 1995 and while there have six convictions under it since then, there have been no executions. Last June, the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, declared the law unconstitutional.
Pataki continues to support the death penalty, touting it in his State of the State address January 5 among the reasons crime has gone down dramatically during his tenure.
But the political landscape may have changed around him. Opponents of the death penalty, who see it as a major civil rights issue, have reason to feel encouraged that it will not be reinstated in New York.
Yes, State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, the almost certain Democratic nominee for governor next year, has said he is in favor of capital punishment for “premeditated acts of terrorism.” But he told Joyce Purnick of the New York Times, “I would be surprised if it’s an issue that is paramount in the public debate.”
Yes, the New York State Senate has passed a new death penalty bill that is supposed to address the concerns of the high court. But opponents call the Senate bill itself, which was passed without hearings, constitutionally flawed. The court struck down the 1995 law in June because it said that if a jury could not agree unanimously on giving a defendant either death or life without parole, the convicted person would get 25 years to life with parole. The court felt that this coerced the jury to be unanimous for a more severe penalty. Under the new Senate bill, if a jury deadlocks on a sentence, the defendant automatically gets life without parole.
Whether or not the senate bill could pass constitutional muster, the Democratic-controlled New York State Assembly seems to be opposed to it, and may not bring it to the floor for a vote. At its first hearing on the issue in December, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau spoke out strongly against it: "The death penalty exacts a terrible price in dollars, lives and human decency. Rather than tamping down the flames of violence, it fuels them."
Additional hearings are planned for January 21st at 10 AM at the Bar Association of the City of New York at 42 W. 44th Street and January 25th in Albany. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a supporter of the death penalty in the past, has given no indication of when or if he will take up the State Senate’s bill to reinstate it.
The death penalty will play a more nuanced role in the mayor’s race this year, with incumbent Republican Mike Bloomberg opposed to it and his Democratic rivals split on the issue. Former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, the only Democrat who leads Bloomberg in recent polls, opposed the death penalty until 1997 when he came out in favor of it for cop killers. When he ran again in 2001, he supported a moratorium on the death penalty, a position that many have embraced in the wake of DNA evidence exonerating scores of death row inmates. U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner of Brooklyn is a death penalty supporter who also now supports a moratorium.
The rest of the Democratic field--City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, and Councilmember Charles Barron--oppose the death penalty. With crime--especially murders--down, it is possible that this issue will play much less of a role in the mayoral election than it has in the past, though Ferrer may be attacked by some of his opponents for his evolution on it.
The New York City Council passed a resolution in 2002 by a 38-13 vote calling on the state to halt all executions "until the application of capital punishment in New York is investigated and issues of fairness, justice, equality, due process and cost are addressed."
All of this encourages death penalty opponents in the state. New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty, founded in 1990, is a coalition that has grown to encompass more than 300 supporting groups , ranging from the New York Bar Association to the New York State Council of Churches. “Too frequently, the death penalty is imposed not on people who commit the worst crimes, but who have the worst attorneys, limited resources, and the wrong skin color," said David Kaczynski, the coalition's executive director (brother of Ted, the "Unabomber"). "You could call it a negative lottery where on the names of the poor are ever entered.”
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said, “There is clear evidence that it does not deter crime and that whether or not someone faces it depends more on race, geography, and politics than the gravity of the events or the misdeeds of the perpetrator.” But she added, “even if our society could insure that capital punishment could be administered with unfailing accuracy, fairness, and justice, we would still be opposed to it because it is immoral for a society to kill people.”
Lieberman noted that has proven cheaper to incarcerate convicted murderers for life than for the government to go through the process of trying to execute them. New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty estimates that, even though nobody has been executed, the state spent more than $175 million on that process since reinstating capital punishment.
Ban On Subway Photography
The on-again, off-again plan by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to ban people from taking photographs, films, or videos on public transit or in subway stations (unless they have a permit) is on again, the New York Times reported. Artists are complaining that they will lose the chance to work in one of their favorite environments. Tourists won’t be able to record their presence in our famous hole in the ground.
Tom Kelly, speaking for the autority, told the Times, “Nobody is looking to violate anybody’s civil rights or deny anybody’s constitutional rights. But when you check with law enforcement agencies, they have uncovered photographs of subway and rail systems from various terrorist organizations. And I don’t believe they were going in somebody’s scrapbook.”
Critics of the ban say that the folks at the MTA are kidding themselves about stopping terrorist surveillance of the transit system, which can be done by tiny hidden cameras.
The ban will go into effect as soon as the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has the chance to vote on it.
Andy Humm is a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.