[Deathpenalty]death penalty news----N.Y., MASS., CONN., ORE.
rhalperi at mail.smu.edu
Sun Dec 12 11:47:07 CST 2004
Don't Revive the Death Penalty
Captial punishment has been suspended in New York, following a state Court
of Appeals ruling in June that the "deadlock instructions" in the death
penalty law were unconstitutional.
These instructions required a judge to tell the jury that if it failed to
unanimously impose the death penalty, the defendant would be eligible for
parole. The court reasoning that the fear of setting a criminal free might
coerce a death penalty vote.
Immediately after the court's decision, Gov. George E. Pataki and the
Senate majority leader, Joseph L. Bruno, promised to cure the legal defect
and quickly pass a new law. The governor put forward a bill in August. The
Senate quickly followed suit. Fortunately, the Assembly leader, Sheldon
Silver, announced that given the issue's profound importance, public
hearings would be held.
The Democrats, who control the Assembly, should make it clear that they
will not pass a new death penalty law. This will take courage, but it is
vital that they do so: We cannot rely much longer on a progressive Court
of Appeals to intercede and prevent executions, as has happened since
1995, when the death penalty was reinstituted in New York. (Mr. Pataki had
vowed to reinstate the death penalty in his campaign against my father,
Gov. Mario M. Cuomo.) As judges appointed by Governor Cuomo retire over
the next few years, Governor Pataki will install more conservative court
More important, there remains no evidence that the death penalty is a
deterrent to crime and plenty of evidence that it is invoked arbitrarily -
and often mistakenly. Last year, 267 inmates nationwide had their death
sentences overturned or removed, according to the Justice Department. This
is the largest number in any year since 1976, when the United States
Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of state death-penalty laws in
a group of states.
Other developments since 1995 have also mirrored the growing doubts about
capital punishment. In 2000, Gov. George Ryan of Illinois, a Republican
who had supported the death penalty, imposed a moratorium on all
executions in his state, citing instances in which death-row inmates were
found to be innocent. And a report issued in November by the Justice
Department reveals that death sentences nationally are now at a 30-year
At the same time, cases in which DNA evidence has established the
innocence of people convicted of capital crimes - along with concerns
about racial bias in death-penalty sentencing - have further undercut
support for capital punishment around the country. According to a 2004
Gallup Poll, about half of all Americans say that convicted murderers
should get the death penalty. But just under half instead support a
sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Public
opinion has been shifting toward this second option, according to the
Gallup organization. The poll also showed that 62 % of Americans believe
that capital punishment does not act as a deterrent, compared with 51
percent in 1991.
Nor does capital punishment make sense financially. Many studies show that
it is more expensive for taxpayers to pursue executions than to sentence
criminals to life without parole. Indeed, New York State has spent at
least $160 million pursuing the death penalty since 1995.
Unfortunately, the prevailing thinking in Albany is that opposition to the
death penalty is "political suicide." I disagree. While the public overall
still favors the death penalty, public opinion in New York has been
shifting. A poll conducted in 2003 by Quinnipiac University shows that a
majority of New York Democrats oppose the death penalty and that a
majority of all New Yorkers favor sentences of mandatory life without
parole over execution. Such sentences did not exist in the state when the
death penalty law was passed in 1995.
Leadership can change public opinion, and this shifting point of view may
become even more pronounced if the Assembly Democrats wage an intense
debate on the issue, informing people of the facts - and of the
shortcomings of the bills awaiting action in the Legislature. While other
states are instituting safeguards against police and prosecutorial
misconduct and ensuring protection for mentally ill defendants in capital
cases, for example, these issues are not addressed in the governor's or
For the public, the debate can begin as early as this week. The first of a
series of public hearings on the death penalty is to be held in New York
City on Wednesday.
The Court of Appeals ruling that suspended the state's death penalty has
given New Yorkers a window of opportunity, a moment to enact a real
reform. It should not be lost.
(source: Op-Ed----Andrew Cuomo, who was Secretary of Housing and Urban
Development from 1997 to 2001, ran for governor in 2002; New York Times
Defendants cases entwined in death penalty ruling
A Rensselaer County Court jury convicted Lance "Ninja" Booker on murder
and conspiracy charges Wednesday, but it is only one chapter of a saga
that began in April 2003 when Albany Police arrested Christopher Drabik
for participating in a drug sale.
Rather than face criminal charges, Drabik agreed to work as a confidential
informant. He was gunned down Dec. 30, five days before the drug trial of
Michael "Murder" Hoffler was to start. Drabik wore a wire while buying
crack from Hoffler twice in May 2003 and was set to testify against the
24-year-old convicted drug dealer.
Prosecutors indicted Hoffler and the alleged triggerman, Gregory "G"
Heckstall, on charges similar to Booker, but their trial dates have not
been set. Mark Harris, an attorney for the Capital Defender's office, who
represents Heckstall, said his client's trial could start as early as
February. Hoffler is represented by Ray Kelly, a prominent attorney paid
with state funds through the same law that created the Capital Defender's
District Attorney Patricia DeAngelis filed a death penalty notice on
Heckstall and Hoffler, but the state Court of Appeals ruled a portion of
the law unconstitutional, and it appears unlikely the state Legislature
will amend the law before Heckstall goes to trial. It remains unclear
whether it will be amended before Hoffler's trial starts.
The 2nd of 2 public hearings called by the state Assembly is not scheduled
until Jan. 25.
Even though death might not be an option a judge can give to a jury at the
present time, the state's Capital Defender Kevin Doyle said, "the law will
not have any of the risk borne by defendants" if, by chance, the
Legislature fixes the statute.
He also said it is better the state pay for the much more expensive death
penalty defense than the county through the Public Defender's office. In
May, the county Legislature allocated $226,119 of state money to the DA's
office for "extraordinary expenses relating specifically to these cases."
Booker is represented by Peter Lynch, who was being paid as a Capital
Defender until DeAngelis decided not to seek the death penalty in that
case. Once that occurred, the Public Defender's office picked up the tab.
Lynch promised to appeal Booker's conviction, and Rensselaer County Court
Judge Patrick McGrath will sentence the 39-year-old father of 6 on Jan. 6.
Shortly after the Court of Appeals ruling, Gov. George Pataki and Senate
Majority Leader Joseph Bruno agreed to a plan they think will satisfy the
court's concern, but Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver did not sign on.
Silver, a Democrat, is a proponent of the death penalty but many other
members of his caucus are not.
Many think Silver will hold up fixing the death penalty, which is more a
plan of the Republican platform, until he gets something major in return.
In April, four days before DeAngelis filed the 2 notices, the Court of
Appeals ruled sentencing guidelines could place an undue burden on jurors
to sentence a person to death even if they don't want to. But they did
give the Legislature the opportunity to fix what the court deemed
unconstitutional. Shortly after Booker was convicted, DeAngelis said the
state could still fix the problem before the next 2 trials start.
Right now, a 1st-degree murder trial can go forward, but the maximum
sentence imposed can be life without parole. Many think the effectiveness
of whatever remedy the Legislature imposes will be decided by the courts.
"If the decision remains unaffected by any new legislation, it means the
death penalty will no longer apply," said Albany County Chief Assistant
District Attorney Michael P. McDermott. "If it is changed and the
Legislature makes it a retroactive change, there is an argument the death
penalty option will be back on the table. But it will be decided by the
Much of the evidence presented against Booker will be the same for Hoffler
and Heckstall, and Kelly and Harris, their respective state-funded
attorneys, were in the court room practically gavel to gavel for Booker's
An eyewitness, who testified against Booker, identified Heckstall as the
shooter, and a jury convicted Hoffler, who was sentenced to 35 years in
state prison, despite the lack of Drabik's testimony.
(source: The (Troy) Record)
Foolproof Death Penalty
The opponents of the death penalty have increasingly emphasized the danger
of placing the wrong people on death row. When there is a possibility that
the innocent will be convicted, they ask, how can the state risk the
finality of execution? This year, the Republican governor of
Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, took that problem to heart and proposed a
solution -- error-free capital punishment.
In May, a blue-ribbon panel convened by Romney offered up recommendations
for a death penalty that would be "as infallible as humanly possible."
Among the high points of the report: execute only the "worst of the worst"
-- certain cop killers, terrorists, multiple murderers and individuals in
a few other select categories. Pay for top-notch defense lawyers. Caution
juries about the questionable value of confessions, eyewitness
identifications and testimony by jailhouse snitches. Require scientific
evidence to corroborate guilt, with DNA matches as the benchmark. Set up
an independent panel to watch out for crime-lab errors. Create a
death-penalty-review commission. And base death sentences on a "no doubt"
standard of proof. Philosophers may gripe about this last requirement --
can anyone be that sure of anything? -- but the commission says it's
trying to ensure that not a single juror harbors lingering uncertainty.
Romney promptly embraced the commission's report. But with the Legislature
firmly in Democratic hands and public support for the death penalty on the
decline in the state, the proposal appears to be stalled. The governor
hasn't even introduced a bill based on his commission's proposals.
For their part, the commissioners say they hope their report will serve as
a guide to states with the death penalty, if not to Massachusetts. But
Franklin Zimring, a law professor at Berkeley, believes the commission's
highly restrictive criteria will have little attraction for determined
The significance of the commission's work, Zimring says, is that it shows
how capital punishment has become a luxury. The outgoing governor of
Illinois commuted the death sentences of all death-row inmates; meanwhile,
the number of people sentenced to death across the United States reached a
30-year low. Now Massachusetts has dreamed up a death penalty that will
apply to very few real criminals, suggesting capital punishment isn't
necessary to keep the streets safe. "This may be the 1st effort to write a
solely symbolic criminal statute," Zimring said of the Massachusetts
proposal. "We have entered the postmodern era of death-penalty discourse."
(source: Emily Bazelon)
Letter From Death Row
November 28, 2004
Dear Governor Rell,
I am writing to you because I have read the following out of an Associated
Press story: "But under a little-known section of the state Constitution -
Article 4, Section 13 - the Republican governor could grant a reprieve
that would postpone Ross' planned January 26 execution until after this
year's legislative session - giving lawmakers the chance to eliminate
capital punishment and stop what would be the state's first execution
since 1960." And I am asking you not to use your executive power to grant
I have enclosed two items as background information which I hope will help
you better understand why I am writing this letter, and hopefully convince
you of the sincerity of my reasons for deciding not to pursue the further
appeals available to me.
The first item is a Connecticut Law Tribune article entitled, "Michael
Ross: Why A Killer Offers To Die," which was written in 1996 when I was
trying to "accept" the death penalty to avoid putting everyone through a
second penalty phase hearing. The second item is a statement that I read
to the court when I signed a set of stipulations which would have allowed
the court to sentence me to death without choosing a jury and going
through a full-blown penalty phase hearing. I would like to clarify that
it was the court who later rejected the stipulations and forced the
penalty phase to take place - I did not "change my mind" as has been
continually and wrongfully reported by the news media.
I am asking you not to exercise your executive power to grant the
temporary reprieve for two reasons. First, and most importantly, it is not
fair to the families of my victims, who have been waiting for over 20
years for justice to be carried out in this case. On the day that I
received an execution date, Mrs. Shelley, the mother of Leslie Shelley
(one of my 14-year-old victims) was on television and asked if she felt
better now that an actual execution date had been set. As she cried, she
said (and I am trying to quote as accurately as I can): "Every time that
we come to court it just tears open our hearts again. I just want this
over one way or the other." Governor Rell, that is what I am trying to do
- it is what I have been trying to do for almost a decade now. My
execution will not heal the families of my victims, and it will not bring
back their daughters. But it will bring about an end to the seemingly
never-ending proceedings - whether it be future court appearances, or be
the future filing of the various post-conviction appeals. It has been over
20 years since my arrest, these people deserve, they have the right to
finally be able to put this behind them. Your granting me a reprieve,
however temporary, would hurt these people no less than my allowing my
lawyers to file a petition for a writ of certiorari - the next step which
my lawyers wish to do.
Governor Rell, I have no death wish - I hope that you will understand that
after reading the enclosed two items. I am simply trying to do the right
thing by attempting to bring this horrible ordeal to an end. Please do not
exercise your power to grant a temporary reprieve, it is the last thing
that these families need, especially now with a real execution date less
than two months away.
I wrote of a second reason not to exercise your power to grant a temporary
reprieve. I cannot quote you from any newspaper, but I have come to
understand from several sources that you would not consider granting a
temporary reprieve unless there were a realistic chance that the state
legislature would vote to abolish the death penalty. I hope that does in
fact happen someday. But I fear that if you grant a temporary reprieve for
me that instead of an honest debate about the merits of whether or not the
state of Connecticut should keep the death penalty on the books, that the
debate would degrade into a referendum of whether Michael Ross should live
or die. You know politics better than I do, but I believe that fear would
rule the political debate. A vote for abolition would be seen as
essentially a vote to "save" Michael Ross. And the pro-death penalty
people would remind the anti-death penalty people that a vote to "save"
Michael Ross would be a huge political liability come re-election time.
I'm sure that you yourself have considered the possible ramifications this
decision could possibly have on your own political future.
I am asking you not to exercise your executive power to grant a temporary
reprieve because I truly believe that the best chance for an honest debate
on the issue of the death penalty can only happen after my execution.
After all the people that say the state of Connecticut is too liberal and
will never allow an execution to take place are proven wrong. After all
the people who claim that I am simply a "media hound" seeking attention
and will change my mind before my execution, are proven wrong. Only then
will there [be] the possibility of an honest debate of the issues
regarding capital punishment.
Governor Rell, I hope that you will seriously consider what I have written
here. Please do not exercise your executive power to grant a temporary
stay of execution in my case. I firmly believe, that for many reasons, and
on many levels, it would simply be the wrong thing to do.
I appreciate you taking the time to read my letter and consider my words.
Michael B. Ross #127404
Death Row - Osborn C.I.
P.O. Box #100
Somers, CT 06071
(source: Hartford Courant)
Milk, Cookies and Hemlock
About the death penalty, Mort Sahl said it best. "You have to kill people.
How else are they going to learn?"
That was the conclusion reached by Gov. M. Jodi Rell this week, and, in
reaching it, she made herself do what no one else has been able to make
her do: take a substantive position on something.
Rell and her team have taken to heart the advice of genius Republican
political consultant Frank Luntz: that people are 80 % emotion and 20 %
thought, so what you feel is more important than what you think.
During her brief, unplanned tenure, Rell has been a rainbow of emotion,
always perfectly tailored to the neural pathways of everyone else. Jump on
her website and look at her press releases, and you will see that she has
been unfailingly upset by what is upsetting, disturbed by what is
disturbing, sick and tired of what is sickening and tiring and uplifted by
what is uplifting.
The death penalty represented her first major challenge. Michael Ross is
scheduled for execution on Jan. 26. The problem with the death penalty is
that some people are sickened and disturbed when you use it. Other people
are sickened and disturbed when you don't. The way they split is
complicated and depends heavily on how the question is asked (especially
on whether life without parole is presented as an option), but it's never
the kind of emotional landslide upon which Rell has dined with such good
In situations like that, one option is to pursue a path of clear-sighted
moral courage. But these are politicians we're talking about. The other
options are to embrace both sides of the question at pretty much the same
time or to make it somebody else's problem. In this case, Rell
experimented with both and got pretty good results.
On Dec. 2, she announced she was considering a reprieve.
This was startling news. The Connecticut Constitution does not give the
governor power to commute a sentence. Only the legislature can do that
(and the legislature has invested the Board of Pardons with that
authority). The governor can issue temporary reprieves to give the
legislature time to do something else.
Rell was on record as favoring capital punishment. She was under no
obligation to do anything at all and didn't have the power to do much. She
didn't have to make a tough call. She could have made no call. The fact
that she announced she was considering doing the one little thing in her
power means that, for some reason, she seriously considered delaying Ross'
execution and forcing the legislature to do more work on the issue.
"I'm looking at literally everything," she said, in one of the more honest
statements by a politician.
When you make that kind of gesture, you hear from both sides. On the one
side are families of the victims, understandably vengeful and forever
wounded by the crimes. Also on that side are people who, for other
reasons, just love the death penalty. They tend to respond in heated
language, i.e. "How can you consider saving that SCUM? You will burn in
HELL! You have lost ALL credibility. I will come up there and push the
button MYSELF if you don't have the GUTS to do it."
On the other side are people who write letters explaining that, if you
pursue capital punishment, they will stand quietly on your lawn holding
Most politicians are more than 80 - let's say 87 - percent emotion, or
they wouldn't have gone into such a desperately approval-seeking line of
work. When they get letters full of heated language about scum and hell,
most of them have to be sedated. There are exceptions - politicians who
can take almost any amount of heavy fire without flinching - but most of
them are named Lowell Weicker Jr.
Rell lasted, from the looks of it, about 24 hours before flushing like a
grouse. She spent the weekend composing a statement. Upon reflection, she
had decided not to grant a reprieve because Ross had admitted his guilt,
removing any doubt, and because his crimes were heinous. These, of course,
were self-evident from the beginning. If they really were the deciding
factors, there was never any reason to say you were considering a
reprieve. It's a little bit like saying that you've decided, after careful
reflection, not to seat Shaquille O'Neal in the front row because it turns
out he's very tall.
More than that, Rell said, she would veto any bill that repealed the death
This was, for an ordinarily careful politician, a bit of a misstep. Rell
didn't need to say that. There is no such bill. If the legislature sent
her one and if it was a strong bill that substituted a life sentence with
no chance of parole and if people turned out to be flustered after our 1st
execution in more than 40 years and if the new bill enjoyed a 72 %
approval rating in the Quinnipiac poll, Rell would have to veto it anyway.
It would have been a much bigger misstep if one of the leaders of the
opposition party hadn't been a blustering fool. Rep. James A. Amann,
D-Milford, is a few weeks away from becoming the new Speaker of the House.
When Rell announced that she was thinking about a reprieve, Amann
immediately blasted her for thinking, an activity he avoids like the
"Why? Why delay another year, have another debate?" Amann said. "I think
we've had this discussion on Mr. Ross' case numerous times. ... God
forgive me, but I don't think anyone is going to lose sleep when Mr. Ross
leaves this planet."
In the words of a country tune, God may forgive you, but I won't. Amann
probably supposes he was speaking from the heart, but a wiser person would
have let Rell make her decision first and forced her to own it. And then,
recognizing that many Connecticut Democrats (including the leaders of the
state Senate) do oppose capital punishment, Amann could, if he chose, have
sided with Rell in a way that still allowed his own party to mount a
challenge if it wanted to.
Instead, he grandstanded and used flip language.
This allowed Rell to say, in words carefully chosen to reflect badly on
Amann, "I can assure you that I have lost more than a few hours' sleep in
recent days as I read and re-read the briefs and documents."
In other words, Rell can support the death penalty and still retain the
respect of some people who oppose it. She wears the mantle of moral
seriousness and the gravitas of Marcus Aurelius. Guess who doesn't?
It is tempting to compare Amann to a bull in a china shop, except that
most bulls, I assume, eventually look down at all the splintered
porcelain, the shattered crystal, and think, "Gee, maybe I ... I mean ...
this doesn't look so good," whereas it is currently impossible to ascribe
that level of conscious reflection to Amann.
To reiterate: He probably thinks he just followed his conscience, which
was a fine thing to do when he was a legislator from Milford. Now he is
the leader of about 100 Democratic legislators, many of whom have
consciences that point in the other direction, and those legislators
represent thousands more, like me, whose hearts would have welcomed a full
debate, possibly leading to abolition of the death penalty.
Rell is right when she says that this decision is so serious as to
transcend politics. But that doesn't mean she won't derive a huge
political benefit from it. She was always the milk-and-cookies lady. Now
she has proven she can serve the cup of hemlock, under certain
circumstances. She is nurturing but tough. The Democrats, meanwhile, have
divided leadership and no clear message. How, as someone asked, are they
ever going to learn?
(source: Opinion, Colin McEnroe, Hartford Courant)
State inmate looks to end the death penalty
Convicted murderer Randy Guzek is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to
overturn Oregon's death penalty law.
If successful, the legal attack by Guzek - who was convicted in the 1987
slaying of an Oregon couple in their Terrebonne home - would threaten the
death sentences of all 29 men on Oregon's death row.
In 1989, the last time the nation's highest court overturned the Oregon
death penalty, all 22 inmates were resentenced and only a handful were
sent back to death row.
Guzek has succeeded in convincing the state supreme court to overturn his
own death sentence three times, most recently this year.
He is seeking to tie his case into a series of recent rulings by the
nation's top court which say that any decision enhancing a defendant's
sentence must be decided by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.
According to Guzek's attorneys, Oregon's capital punishment statute breaks
this law because it calls for jurors to predict whether a defendant is
likely to commit violent acts in the future, as part of deciding whether
to impose a death sentence.
"Nobody can predict beyond a reasonable doubt," Guzek's attorney Richard
Wolf told The Oregonian newspaper.
Kevin Neely, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Justice, said the
state's death penalty law is constitutional and has withstood similar
challenges in the past.
The genesis of Guzek's challenge is a four-year-old U.S. Supreme Court
The court in 2000 overturned a New Jersey hate crime law that allowed a
judge to increase a prison sentence after making findings based on a
preponderance of evidence. The high court said a jury, not a judge, must
make that decision beyond a reasonable doubt, a higher standard of proof.
Legal experts saw the door open to potential challenges to a wide variety
of laws that allow judges, not juries, to make key decisions. But it
wasn't clear how far the Supreme Court was willing to extend the rule.
2 years later, the Supreme Court applied its new standard in an Arizona
death penalty case, ruling that juries, not judges, must impose a capital
That ruling brought together the 2 components of Guzek's challenge of
Oregon's death penalty statute: that juries in death penalty cases must
make decisions beyond a reasonable doubt.
The odds still are against Wolf persuading the nation's highest court to
take Guzek's case. One significant problem is that he is no longer on
The court typically addresses capital punishment in cases where the
defendant's life is on the line. Guzek is awaiting his 4th sentencing
trial, in which the jury could put him back on death row or sentence him
(source: Associated Press)
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