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In N.Y., Lawmakers Vote Not to Reinstate Capital Punishment

Accidental Execution of the Innocent Cited

By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 13, 2005; Page A03

NEW YORK, April 12 -- New York's death penalty is no more.

A legislative committee tossed out a bill Tuesday aimed at reinstating the state's death penalty, which a court had suspended last year. It was an extraordinary bit of drama, not least because a top Democrat who once strongly supported capital punishment led the fight to end it.

David Kaczynski, left, and Bruce Grieshaber, whose daughter was murdered, prepare to testify at a New York State Assembly hearing on the death penalty. (Jim Mcknight -- AP)

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Death Penalty

"The first time I voted for the death penalty, I thought of the law as majestic and that there was very little chance of a mistake," said Assemblyman Joseph R. Lentol (D), who represents a working-class swath of Brooklyn and leads the committee that rejected the bill. "Then you grow up. Look at the DNA evidence -- you realize that people can make terrible mistakes."

It is a sentiment heard with increasing vehemence across the nation. As crime rates have plummeted, and DNA evidence has revealed that innocent men have been sentenced to die, capital punishment seems to resonate less with voters. Judges and juries handed out 50 percent fewer death sentences last year than 10 years ago.

National attention now fixes less on horrific crimes than on wrongful convictions. Several dozen death row inmates have been freed nationwide after evidence -- usually DNA -- proved their innocence.

Thirty-seven states still use capital punishment. But two successive governors of Illinois have imposed a moratorium on executions in that state. In Kansas, the state Supreme Court struck down the death penalty earlier this year, ruling that the law forced jurors -- when all evidence was equal -- to choose capital punishment over life in prison. In New Jersey, the top state court has also imposed a moratorium.

In the past year, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the government cannot execute juveniles and the mentally retarded.

"The trend line on the death penalty is headed down," said Richard C. Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. "DNA has given people pause -- there's less certainty and less polarization. No one wants to execute an innocent person."

At the federal level, however, the Clinton and Bush administrations have greatly expanded the potential use of capital punishment for some drug and terrorism crimes. And then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft directed his prosecutors to seek the death penalty in many cases, sometimes overruling local prosecutors who had decided against it.

In New York, the state's highest court struck down the death penalty last summer on what appeared to be a technicality. Gov. George E. Pataki (R), who rode the death penalty issue to the governor's residence a decade ago, promised a quick legislative fix. The Republican-controlled state Senate overwhelming approved a new capital punishment bill.

But the Democratic-controlled Assembly killed the legislation in an 11-to-7 committee vote. (Lentol acknowledged that the vote would have been much closer if the committee had allowed the bill to go to the floor.)

"The Assembly leadership's 'so what?' attitude toward criminals, whether they're sex offenders, deadly drivers or heinous murderers, is simply shameful," Pataki said in a statement after the vote. "They need to stop protecting criminals and start protecting New Yorkers."

Pataki has rumbled about raising the death penalty issue in upcoming state campaigns. But that political dramaturgy may not follow the old narrative line. A recent poll found that a sizable majority of state residents would be content with sentencing those convicted of homicide to life in prison without parole rather than using the death penalty.

That poll found that support for this position held true as much in Republican-rich upstate New York as in the Democratic precincts of Manhattan.

David Kaczynski, who 10 years ago told federal agents he suspected that his brother, Theodore, was the Unabomber, now heads New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty. He led the fight to block the reinstatement of capital punishment.

"We certainly don't second-guess our decision to turn Ted in, but it was a chilling thought that it could result in his execution," Kaczynski said. "Ten years ago in New York, people thought the death penalty was a silver bullet."

New York once executed inmates at a fast clip.

Altogether, 695 New Yorkers have been put to death, second only to Texas. New York has not carried out an execution since the law was reinstated in 1995. Two men remain on the state's death row, and some prosecutors said they still could face death -- although neither Republican nor Democratic legislators think that is likely.

"Times change," Lentol said. "I never thought I'd vote against the death penalty. But I've come to realize that no one's perfect, including judges and juries."

Special correspondent Michelle Garcia contributed to this report.

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