June 9, 2004

Emotional issue reveals divisions

With Senate having already passed bill to reinstate ultimate penalty in state, Assembly takes slower approach

By Erin Duggan Capitol Bureau

PAT LYNCH, head of the New York City Policemen’s Benevolent Association, speaks on the need for the death penalty, with State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, right, Tuesday at the Capitol.ALBANY, Mar. 2, 2005 —When Ramon Nazario and four others were herded into a basement freezer of a Queens fast-food restaurant and shot, they weren’t given appeals or bargains for their lives. They were executed one by one, and their shocking deaths became examples of why some New York lawmakers want to bring back the death penalty.

“He wasn’t just shot. He was executed,” said Benjamin Nazario, Ramon’s brother. “People should think, especially people who don’t believe in the death penalty, what the families go through.”

The convicted killer, John Taylor, was sentenced to death, but is appealing the sentence while the state has been effectively without a death penalty since the Court of Appeals struck it down in June.

In the meantime, state lawmakers are wrestling with what to do with a law they tried for years to get on the books, only to have it handed back to them by the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest, which many believe will never allow a New York execution.

In the Queens case, Taylor’s co-defendant Craig Godineaux, 32, pleaded guilty in January 2001 to shooting five of the victims – three fatally, according to The Associated Press. The mentally retarded man was ineligible for the death penalty and instead received five life sentences.

The death penalty passed the Legislature in 1995 with bipartisan support after a 19-year effort. But after nearly a decade, support from some lawmakers is fading amid questions over its cost – an estimated $200 million, largely to run the Capital Defenders Office, since 1995 – and its effectiveness. No one has been executed in New York since 1963, but murders are at a 40-year low.

In June, the state’s top three leaders came out strongly in favor of reinstating capital punishment. But the Assembly and Senate are dealing with a death penalty fix in extremely different ways.

The Senate passed a new bill last fall without even giving it the mandatory three-day waiting period, making only narrow changes to fix the flaws identified by the Court of Appeals.

The Assembly refused to move on the bill and instead called for hearings around the state.

Leaders and members in each house accuse the other side of doing a disservice to New Yorkers.

Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno calls the death penalty a proven crime fighter and said the bill to reinstate it is being held up by needless hearings that lean heavily against capital punishment.

“It is a deterrent, and it’s working, because when violent criminals face the death penalty, it allows justice to prevail, whether they plead out or not,” Bruno said Tuesday.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said the cost and changing attitudes on the death penalty called for a re-evaluation of the law, not a quick fix that could be thrown out again.

“Our house has clearly taken up the death penalty legislation this year,” Silver said. “We have had an unprecedented five hearings on this issue. … We’ve given everyone the opportunity to weigh in on it.”

Silver predicted there will be at least a committee vote on the bill this year. If that passes, it would bring the death penalty closer to a full Assembly vote.

Trapped between Silver and Bruno are lawmakers who feel they’re not getting a say. Bronx Democratic Sen. Jeffrey Klein co-sponsored the 1995 death penalty bill when he was in the Assembly and remains a strong supporter of it, but says his new colleagues have badly handled reinstating the law.

“I think the process that the Senate has used so far stinks,” he said Tuesday afternoon. “I think it’s incumbent upon us to have open meetings on such a contentious issue, especially when people are passionate on either side. That’s where the Senate missed the boat.”

The Senate bill is expected to be voted on next week.

The Assembly is waiting for a report on its hearings, which concluded last month.

Assembly Minority Leader Charles Nesbitt, R-Albion, wants the bill to come to the floor for debate and maintains rank-and-file Assembly members still favor the death penalty.

“There’s a certain amount of public patience for us to go through the process – the hearings, and press conferences like today,” he said. “But that patience won’t last forever.”

Nesbitt and Klein supported the Assembly hearings, which attracted dozens of speakers, but said they helped stack the deck against the death penalty.

Anyone could testify at the meetings, but Klein said death penalty advocates haven’t been making their case.

Bruno on Tuesday dismissed the idea of holding hearings.

“The Assembly presently is having hearings, which is very puzzling,” he said. “I’m not sure what they’re having the hearings on. This is an issue that has been before the Legislature for decades.”

Bruno and the Senate sponsor, Dale Volker, R-Depew, focused on the drop in New York’s homicide rate since 1995 as proof that the death penalty deters crime. But the murder rate has been dropping in New York since 1990, and nationwide as well.

Erin Duggan can be reached at 454-5091 or by email at eduggan@timesunion.com