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Death penalty suspended in new york

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New York's death penalty suspended
Part of law ruled unconstitutional; 4 death row inmates to be resentenced
By Joel Stashenko
The Associated Press

ALBANY -- Jury instructions given at capital punishment trials in New York violate the state's constitution because they may coerce some jurors into voting for death when they really don't want to, the state's highest court ruled Thursday.

The 4-3 ruling not only spared the life of Long Island killer Stephen LaValle, but legal experts said it invalidates the death sentences of the three other men who currently live with him on death row at Clinton Correctional Facility, near Plattsburgh. All were condemned under the same court procedures ruled invalid Thursday in LaValle's case.

The Court of Appeals also said Thursday that the nine current prosecutions in the state in which prosecutors have served notice of intent to seek death can go forward -- but only with a maximum penalty of life without parole, not lethal injection.

In Binghamton, jury selection in the first-degree murder case against Vernon Parker was halted Thursday once word of the ruling got out. Parker faces first-degree murder there for the July 2002 shooting of former Ithacan Valerie Spears, 50, of Binghamton and her 14-year-old daughter, Devin. The judge, prosecutors and defense lawyers said they would meet next week to determine their next move.

Gov. George Pataki, who championed the 1995 reinstatement of the death penalty in New York, said he was disappointed with Thursday's ruling and wanted time to study it. State Sen. Dale Volker, an Erie County Republican who sponsored the capital punishment legislation, said he would quickly introduce a bill to "undo the damage wrought by the court's decision" and get a legally valid statute back on the books.

"It is clear that judicial activism is alive and well, and that today's decision flies in the face of our democratic form of government," Volker said.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said he would "take appropriate action" to address the court's objections to the law after consulting with Democratic Assembly members.

In New York, judges must tell jurors during the penalty phase of capital trials that they can choose between death or life without parole for defendants. Judges also must say that if jurors deadlock between the two punishments, the law orders judges to sentence defendants to between 20 and 25 years to life in prison, a sentence that carries with it the possibility of parole.

A majority of the judges Thursday said that arrangement creates the "unconstitutionally palpable risk" that a juror favoring life without parole will decide for death and avoid a deadlocked jury for fear that a defendant could someday be paroled.

"A juror who has found defendant guilty of a capital crime, and has heard weeks of arguments and a summation reviling the defendant and detailing the pain he has caused, is more likely to choose death than risk the prospect of defendant ever harming anyone in society again," Judge George Bundy Smith wrote for the majority of the court.

Smith said it is up to the Legislature and governor -- not the court -- to devise a constitutional jury instruction process.

The judges ordered that LaValle be resentenced to life without parole or a sentence of 20 to 25 years in prison with the chance of parole.

Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota urged the Legislature to give jurors only a choice between death or life without parole during the penalty phase of trials.

LaValle, 37, was convicted of raping and killing Cynthia Quinn on May 31, 1997, in Yaphank, Suffolk County. He told police he attacked her after the 32-year-old track coach and mother happened upon him urinating on the side of a road while she was jogging and called him a bum.

Though the court's ruling Thursday did not expressly say so, legal experts said the same deficiencies the judges found in LaValle's death sentence were present in those of the other three death row occupants.

"There's no doubt that they'll all have to benefit by this ruling," said James Acker, a criminal justice professor at the State University of New York at Albany.

Paul Gianelli, a lawyer representing death row inmate Robert Shulman, predicted Shulman's death sentence would be reversed based on Thursday's ruling. Shulman was condemned for murdering and dismembering three prostitutes in the New York City region.

Others on New York's death row are Nicholson McCoy, who was convicted of killing a female co-worker in Suffolk County, and John Taylor, who killed five people at a Wendy's restaurant in Queens.

No one has been executed under the 1995 death penalty statute. The Court of Appeals has thrown out three previous death sentences on more narrow procedural or sentencing grounds.

"Nobody can claim that this decision is hypertechnical or esoteric," said Kevin Doyle, head of the state-funded Capital Defender Office which represented LaValle. "It has to do with fundamental fairness and common sense."

Writing for the dissenting judges Thursday, Judge Robert S. Smith said that although New York's jury instructions in the death penalty law are unique in the country, that does not make the provisions unconstitutional.

"This statute is constitutional unless obedience to its command violates due process by depriving a defendant of a fair trial," Smith wrote. "In our view, it meets this test."

Associated Press Writer Larry McShane in New York City contributed to this report.

Originally published Friday, June 25, 2004

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