Seek Fewer Executions, Signaling New Wariness
The New York Times
September 21, 2003
Eight years after
a wave of pro-death-penalty sentiment brought a new capital punishment
law in New York, there are signs that prosecutors around the state
may be losing enthusiasm for seeking execution.
In the first years
after the law was enacted, district attorneys sought the death
penalty far more often than they have in recent years. In 1998,
the peak year, prosecutors filed legal notices recommending that
14 people be put to death. But since then, death-penalty cases
have declined sharply, to two so far this year, according to data
from the New York Capital Defender Office, a state-financed agency
that represents defendants.
In interviews, prosecutors
offered many reasons for the decline, including the shrinking
crime rate and growing questions nationally about wrongful convictions.
Some cautioned that
it was hard to draw any conclusions because of the small number
of people, 49, whom New York prosecutors have sought to execute
under the new law.
But some prosecutors
said the first years had taught them hard lessons about the extraordinary
difficulties of death-penalty cases. Several said it was so hard
to persuade New York jurors to vote for death that they were being
more selective in choosing when to seek execution.
being more and more careful in making that determination,"
said Howard R. Relin, the longtime district attorney in Rochester,
who favors the death penalty. "There's a sense of realism
that has set in to prosecutors around New York State, as a result
of the jury verdicts we have seen throughout the state."
Even if prosecutors
persuade jurors to vote for capital punishment, many years of
uncertainty follow. No one has yet been put to death under the
law, and no execution is considered likely for at least several
years because of the lengthy appeals process. Of the seven men
who have been sentenced to die, the state's highest court, the
Court of Appeals, has already reversed the sentence in one case.
That defendant, a Brooklyn killer named Darrel K. Harris, was
then sentenced to life without parole.
Each of the six other
cases is being appealed. One of those, involving James F. Cahill
3rd, a Syracuse man who poisoned his wife as she was recovering
from a beating he had inflicted with a baseball bat, is to be
heard by the Court of Appeals tomorrow.
Several cases have
shown the extraordinary time and resources consumed by death penalty
battles, the Queens district attorney, Richard A. Brown, said.
Death-penalty cases in the state almost always involve skilled
defense lawyers, and courts are meticulous about reviewing every
Mr. Brown said prosecutors
had come to understand that the suffering of murder victims' relatives
is often prolonged in death-penalty cases because of the years
of legal warfare. He said prosecutors were also keenly aware of
the drain on their time and energy and the cost to the state.
at a time of fiscal crisis," Mr. Brown said, "it is
very difficult to justify taking experienced prosecutors away
from handling other violent felonies."
Across the country,
other state prosecutors appear to be seeking the death penalty
less often than they did in the 1990's, said Richard C. Dieter,
executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a
group that says it is critical of the way the death penalty is
carried out but takes no position on whether capital punishment
should be permitted. Mr. Dieter said that evidence in Ohio, California,
North Carolina and other states showed that state prosecutors
have been seeking death less often.
"There is definitely
a trend in other states, and the time line is very much the same"
as it is in New York, with state prosecutors filing sharply fewer
death penalty cases than they did in the late 1990's, Mr. Dieter
In a contrast to
the trend in many states, federal prosecutors appear to be seeking
the death penalty more often than they did in the past, though
federal death-penalty cases account for only a tiny portion of
all capital punishment cases in the country. Seeking consistency
in the application of the federal death penalty, Attorney General
John Ashcroft has ordered some United States attorneys to seek
executions in cases when they had recommended against it. Federal
prosecutors in New York and Connecticut have been among those
whose recommendations were overruled by Mr. Ashcroft.
In many cases in
which New York State prosecutors sought the death penalty, plea
bargains and other resolutions have often meant that defendants
ended up with sentences of life without parole anyway. Even in
the cases that proceeded to trial, the majority have ended without
juries voting for execution.
In one Queens case
in 1998, a petty drug dealer, James Allen Gordon, was convicted
of a rampage of robbery, rape, torture and murder. But the jurors
voted against execution, apparently because of accounts of the
man's childhood abuse by his mother, a heroin addict. In May,
a Westchester County jury convicted Dennis Alvarez Hernandez of
fatally stabbing his girlfriend and two of her children, ages
7 and 4, but deadlocked on whether to impose the death sentence.
A judge later imposed a sentence of 115 years to life.
Of the 18 death-penalty
cases that have gone to trial in New York, 7 ended with death
sentences, 7 ended with jury verdicts of life without parole or
the equivalent and, after plea deals or jury deadlocks, 4 offenders
were sentenced by judges to life in prison.
said that pursuing a sentence of life without parole from the
outset could be more efficient. Helping them make such decisions,
they said, is a sense that the death penalty is not the volatile
political issue that some expected after the law was passed with
the strong support of Gov. George E. Pataki.
like the Brooklyn district attorney, Charles J. Hynes, said they
made each decision about whether to seek death based on the facts
of the case, and did not consider the statewide statistics meaningful.
Sean M. Byrne, the executive director of the state's Prosecutors
Training Institute, which works with district attorneys on death-penalty
issues, said the possibility of execution often motivates a defendant
to seek a sentence of life without parole.
But the district
attorney in Rochester, Mr. Relin, said prosecutors also had an
incentive to try to avoid trial: they realize in plea negotiations
how hard it can be to persuade a jury to vote for death.
"Even if you
have a strong feeling in favor of the death penalty, as I and
some of my colleagues do," he said, "when a defendant
wants to plead guilty for life without parole, you have to look
very carefully at that because that may end up being a jury verdict
after an eight-month trial process."