Senate Approves Legislation Restoring Death Penalty In Cases Where Law Officer Is Killed

George Winner

June 13, 2006

Albany, N.Y.-- The New York State Senatehas approved legislation co-sponsored by Senator George H. Winner, Jr. (R-C, Elmira) to reinstate New York’s death penalty for violent murderers who kill a police officer, peace officer or employee of the state Department of Correctional Services.

The legislation was approved by a vote of 37 to 23.

Winner, a strong death penalty advocate for nearly three decades in state government, urged Assembly Democratic leaders to also allow a vote on the measure.

"Over the past few years our region has become too familiar with violent criminals who have no respect for human life and who threaten our safety and security," said Winner, referring to the murder of New York State Trooper Andrew Sperr in Big Flats in March, the fatal shootings of Bradford County sheriff's deputies Michael A. VanKuren and Christopher M. Burgert in a methamphetamine-related confrontation in March 2004 and, on Saturday, the shooting of New York State Trooper Sean Brown in the town of Veteran. "If we ask our State Troopers, sheriffs, local police officers, and corrections officers to risk their lives day after day, then I believe we have a high responsibility as a government to back them up with every possible protection and a strong system of justice that includes capital punishment."

The Senate legislation addresses a June 2004 decision by the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, that declared New York’s existing death penalty statute unconstitutional. New York Governor George Pataki will sign the legislation into law, thereby restoring the death penalty for those who intentionally kill police, peace or corrections officers, if it’s approved by the state Assembly.

Key Assembly leaders have expressed reservations about restoring the death penalty.

"New York’s death penalty will be reinstated if the full Assembly is allowed to vote on it. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver should allow that vote to take place before the end of the current legislative session next week," Winner said.

The Court of Appeals first struck down the state’s death penalty in 1977. That began an 18-year effort by the Legislature to restore it, an effort which culminated in 1995 when the Legislature overwhelmingly approved and Pataki signed a law reinstating the death penalty. New York became one of 38 states with a capital punishment statute.

In June 2004 the Court of Appeals ruled the 1995 death penalty statute unconstitutional in a case involving a death-row inmate. The court’s decision focused on a provision of the 1995 law requiring judges to tell jurors in capital cases that if they deadlocked and failed to reach a verdict, the judge would impose a sentence that would leave the defendant eligible for parole after 20 to 25 years. The court feared this provision presented an "unconstitutionally palpable risk" since it could coerce some jurors into supporting a death sentence only because they were afraid the defendant could be released from prison in the future. Consequently, the judges ruled the statute a violation of the state’s constitutional guarantee of due process of law.

The legislation Winner co-sponsors addresses the Court of Appeals decision by mandating a sentence of life without parole if a sentencing jury deadlocks. Supporters say this will allay juror concerns over the possibility for parole and allow the consideration of a death sentence strictly on its merits. Jurors would be told of the life without parole provision before sentencing.