Keeping the Death Penalty Out of New York

By: Rebecca Kurti and Liliana Segura

This past December, following the fatal shooting of a New York City police officer, New York Governor George Pataki called legislators back to Albany for a special session. In a baldly political move that simultaneously paid lip service to tougher gun control laws, the governor tried to push through a vote on legislation that would overturn the decision made by the New York State Assembly last spring to put New York’s death penalty to rest indefinitely. The death penalty, Pataki argued, was needed for killers of police officers.

Anti-death penalty activists, including the CEDP, acted fast to alert the community to contact State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and other state and local politicians to let it be known that New Yorkers continue to oppose the death penalty.

The governor should already know this. In June of 2004, the New York State Court of Appeals declared the state’s death penalty law unconstitutional. In response, Sheldon Silver called for public hearings to reexamine the death penalty, inviting legal experts, academics, law enforcement officials, and members of the activist community to speak about the issue. New York CEDP chapters reached out to students and other groups to form a coalition that would make sure the anti-death penalty public was heard. Exonerated death row prisoners and CEDP members, Madison Hobley and Shujaa Graham, traveled to Manhattan to give powerful testimony that made visible the corruption, torture, and racism of the death penalty. (See Feb. 2005 New Ab)

After the hearings, state legislators who once supported the death penalty realized that questions of innocence, racial inequality, and the option of life in prison without parole had led more and more New Yorkers to question the death penalty Luckily, legislators remembered this in December, and Pataki’s stealth move to restore the death penalty failed. (The legislature did, however, create a new crime category for the intentional murder of a police officer--“aggravated murder”--that carries with it an automatic sentence of life without the possibility of parole.)

Abolitionists in New York and across the country should celebrate this local victory. At the same time, we must take Pataki’s cynical move as a warning: Stay vigilant. Keep up the pressure.