Switch by Former
Supporter Shows Evolution of Death Law
New York Times
By SAM ROBERTS
February 28, 2005
Helene E. Weinstein owes her Assembly seat,
in part, to capital punishment.
In 1978, her father toppled the Assembly
speaker, Stanley Steingut, a death penalty opponent, from his
Brooklyn district, in an upset that sent shock waves through state
politics. Two years later, Ms. Weinstein herself was elected to
the seat, and consistently voted in favor of the death penalty.
But in a shift that reflects the changing
passions on capital punishment among the public and its elected
officials, Ms. Weinstein these days harbors serious doubts about
the death penalty. And now, having risen to become chairwoman
of the Judiciary Committee, she is poised to doom New York State's
on-again-off-again death penalty law.
"It was an evolutionary process,"
Ms. Weinstein said the other day, explaining her shift. "But
clearly the advent of DNA evidence and the dramatic number of
individuals who have been exonerated and freed from death row
in states around the country was something that was building in
Such are the paradoxes of politics - of
politics as practiced in Brooklyn, anyway - that Ms. Weinstein's
father, Murray, not only still supports the death penalty, but
now admits that his support for capital punishment began only
during the campaign against Mr. Steingut.
"I switched in 1978," he recalled.
"Steingut was against it and I needed a point of distinction."
Mr. Weinstein also expressed some doubt
about the depth of his daughter's support for capital punishment.
"I always thought she was uncomfortable in her position,"
he said, "but obviously she supported it all along to be
Ms. Weinstein, who was 25 when she first
ran for the Assembly, said she did not precisely recall when she
became an advocate of capital punishment. "I assume when
I first ran for office," she said. "I'm not sure that
I had focused on it before. I felt comfortable voting for the
death penalty. That was my position."
Other issues also helped to cost Mr. Steingut
his seat, particularly the view among many voters that he had
lost touch with his district. But rising violent crime, a number
of sensational murders and Gov. Hugh L. Carey's veto of legislation
that spring to restore capital punishment all resonated loudly
in the primary and general election campaigns for state offices
that year. Mr. Steingut allowed the death penalty bill to get
to the floor of the Assembly, but voted against it.
Mr. Steingut, who was first elected to
the Assembly in 1952, the year Ms. Weinstein was born, was singled
out on two levels in 1978. Theodore Silverman, a local city councilman,
wanted his wife to be Mr. Steingut's co-district leader but was
rebuffed and vowed revenge. Andrew Stein, then the Manhattan borough
president, was dismayed that Mr. Steingut had not been legally
implicated by his association with figures in a nursing home scandal,
so, he explained at the time, "subjectively and politically
I made up my mind to destroy him."
Ms. Weinstein was the chosen vehicle to
defeat the speaker, but her residency was challenged, a maneuver
that inadvertently heightened resentment against Mr. Steingut,
who, with his father, had represented the district for more than
a half century. She was forced off the ballot, and her father,
Murray, a 50-year-old lawyer, replaced her. Less than two weeks
later, he upset Mr. Steingut in the Democratic primary. Mr. Weinstein
reluctantly relinquished the seat to his daughter two years later.
"She was entitled to it," he
recalled. "She really ran for it."
After Ms. Weinstein came to Albany, Gov.
Mario M. Cuomo, like Mr. Carey before him, vigorously opposed
the death penalty. He was defeated in 1994 by George E. Pataki,
a Republican, who 10 years ago next month signed a law reimposing
capital punishment for first-degree murder. Last June, the State
Court of Appeals ruled that a central provision of the law was
unconstitutional, effectively suspending the death penalty in
Governor Pataki proposed a quick fix, and
the Republican-controlled Senate concurred last summer. But after
holding five joint hearings, members of three committees in the
Democratic-run Assembly, including Ms. Weinstein's, doubt whether
any death penalty bill can pass constitutional muster or whether,
politically, one seems as vital as it did a decade or more ago.
Ms. Weinstein attributes those doubts to
several factors: crime has sharply declined; the law now provides
for the option of life imprisonment without parole; evidence has
mounted that black and Hispanic inmates are disproportionately
executed; and the number of death-row inmates who have been exonerated
nationwide has given even hardened capital punishment supporters
"I saw the play 'The Exonerated,'
" Ms. Weinstein said. "It had tremendous impact on me."
Since the early 1990's, as crime plummeted,
proponents of capital punishment have maintained that the death
penalty has, at least, been a deterrent.
"I believed when I voted for it that
there was a deterrent effect," Ms. Weinstein said. "I
am pretty convinced now that there isn't. No one ever thinks he's
getting caught, and the likelihood that you're going to get caught,
convicted and receive the death penalty is so remote."
Ms. Weinstein recalled testimony at the
Assembly hearings, which ended earlier this month, from a district
attorney who supported capital punishment in principle but opposed
reinstatement of the statute because death penalty cases cost
taxpayers too much to prosecute and to defend and because no version
could be legally foolproof.
She also recalled testimony from another
law enforcement official who said that if he were convicted he
would rather be executed than be sentenced to life without parole,
and the testimony of a judge who warned that a higher standard
of proof than beyond a reasonable doubt must be required. And
she said she had heard from witnesses who said the death penalty
was more likely to be sought when the victim was white and the
defendant was black.
"The chance of unequal justice and
the part that racism plays I found very disturbing," Ms.
Moreover, she added, hiring public defenders
and other costs mean that about $170 million has already been
spent on a death penalty that has not resulted in a single execution.
"We could have spent more on other
criminal justice and social programs," she said.
After reviewing the testimony, Ms. Weinstein
said the committee heads would report to the Assembly.
"I think it was impossible for anyone
to sit through the testimony and not come away with the conclusion
that you cannot draft a death penalty law that does not have the
possibility of convicting someone who is innocent," she said.
"It seems clear to me that from all of what we've heard the
chance of convicting an innocent individual remains a possibility,
and there's no way to rectify that. People are seeing that the
justice system is not infallible."
Reminded of her position a decade and longer
ago, Ms. Weinstein was asked how she could be sure she was right
"I'm not sure there's anything as
dramatic or as important as the death penalty in terms of my vote,"
she replied. "I have certainly looked at legislative proposals
I supported or opposed and become convinced there's room for a
change of position. Times and evidence have changed. That is the
wonderful thing about a mind: You can change when you hear evidence
and make an intelligent choice."