Senate Committee Advances Death Penalty In Cases Where Police Officer Is Killed

George Winner

March 08, 2006

Albany, N.Y.-- The State Senate Codes Committee has 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.

A vote by the full Senate could come soon and Winner, a strong death penalty advocate for nearly three decades in state government, called on Assembly Democratic leaders to "wake up to the real world" and also allow a vote on the measure.

"Over the past few years and again last week with the murder of New York State Trooper Andrew Sperr, the region I represent is well aware that violent criminals, who have no respect for human life, are real threats to our safety and security. Assembly Democratic leaders need to wake up to the real world," said Winner, referring to the murder of Trooper Sperr last week in Big Flats and to the fatal shootings of Bradford County sheriff's deputies Michael A. VanKuren and Christopher M. Burgert in a methamphetamine-related confrontation in March 2004. "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. The death penalty must be restored as a key weapon in our criminal justice arsenal."

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. Some key Assembly leaders have expressed reservations about restoring the death penalty.

"If the full Assembly is allowed to vote, I'm certain New York’s death penalty will be reinstated. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver should allow that vote to take place, sooner rather than later," 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.

Winner, who served in the state Assembly for 26 years before being elected to the Senate in 2004, has been a strong death penalty advocate. He said that in 1994, the year before the state’s death penalty was reinstated, New York was the sixth most-violent state in the nation. Since 1995 New York has become the least-violent large state in America, and the sixth safest state overall, according to statistics compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The state’s violent crime rate declined by nearly 50% between 1994 and 2003.

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.