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A ruling by the New York State Court of Appeals has halted all death sentences in New York. Given the flaws in the death penalty system documented across the U.S. and in New York in particular, Human Rights Watch urges the New York Assembly to oppose reinstatement of the death penalty.

December 15, 2004

Dear Member of the Assembly,

We strongly urge you to oppose reinstatement of the death penalty in New York.

As you know, the New York State Court of Appeals recently ruled that the state’s death penalty statute is unconstitutional. The court considered the statute’s “deadlock” provision, under which the judge would instruct jurors that if they could not agree on either a death sentence or life without parole, the judge would impose a lesser sentence that included the possibility of parole. The court ruled that this provision could coerce jurors to choose a death sentence over life without parole rather than take the chance that a judge-imposed sentence might allow the defendant to be released. This ruling has halted all death sentences in New York and has given the state and the public an important opportunity to assess the death penalty anew.

A great deal has changed since New York enacted its death penalty statute in 1995. Across the country, numerous state and national studies have identified serious flaws that undermine the fairness and integrity of capital punishment. In Illinois, a 2002 bi-partisan commission released a report based on an exhaustive two-year study of the administration of the death penalty in that state. The report identifies numerous ways that error, arbitrariness, and prejudice can influence capital punishment decisions. In Texas, several organizations have recently documented the prevalence of prosecutorial misconduct and inadequate representation in the death penalty system. Nationwide, these flaws have contributed to death sentences being levied on innocent people: since 1973, 117 innocent persons have been released from death row in twenty-five states, some within hours of their scheduled execution.

The capital punishment system in New York has been shown to suffer from the same flaws as other states. The Center for Law and Justice, based in Albany, found that defendants convicted of murdering white victims are more than twice as likely to face the death penalty as those convicted of murdering black victims. Furthermore, the Capital Defender Office has documented a clear geographic bias in New York’s death penalty: 65 percent of all capital prosecutions are brought upstate, even though only 20 percent of homicides occur upstate. A study at SUNY-Albany’s School of Criminal Justice found that many of the serious problems identified in Illinois also were found in New York. This study concluded by reiterating the sober warning of the Illinois commission -- that no capital punishment system, with its inherent human flaws, could ever guarantee that an innocent person would not be sentenced to death. If New York reinstates the death penalty in the face of these persistent problems in the application of capital punishment, it will undermine justice and public confidence in the fundamental fairness of the criminal justice system in New York.

The last several years have seen fewer death sentences across the U.S.: from 300 in 1998 to 143 in 2003. That reduction reflects, in significant part, growing public and official disquiet with the fairness of the system of capital punishment. Still, the continued use of the death penalty in the United States ignores a worldwide trend against the use of capital punishment. Being on the wrong side of this trend harms the moral leadership of the United States in the world. Since 1990, more than thirty-five countries and territories have abolished the death penalty for all crimes, and 117 countries have either abolished the death penalty or have allowed it to fall out of practice by not carrying out an execution in the last ten years. In the past decade, three countries a year on average have abolished the death penalty. Yet, in 2003, the United States, along with Iran, China, and Vietnam, carried out 84 percent of the known executions worldwide.

Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty and because executions are inevitably carried out in an arbitrary manner, inflicted primarily on the most vulnerable – the poor, the mentally ill, and persons of color. The intrinsic fallibility of all criminal justice systems assures that even when full due process of law is respected, innocent persons are sometimes executed. For these reasons, we urge the Assembly not to reinstate the death penalty in the state of New York.


Kenneth Roth
Executive Director

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