NYCLU Hails New York Appeals Decision Invalidating State Death Penalty

Affiliate: ACLU of New York
June 24, 2004 12:00 am

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NEW YORK — The New York Civil Liberties Union today hailed a New York Court of Appeals decision that effectively invalidates the state’s death penalty. In a 4-3 decision, the court ruled that the “deadlock” instruction given to juries improperly coerces them to vote for the death penalty.

“This is a vindication for the NYCLU and all opponents to the death penalty,” said Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the NYCLU. “We argued in 1995 that including this jury deadlock provision only served to put pressure on jurors who were holding out for a life sentence rather than vote for the death penalty.”

The deadlock instruction is given to jurors at the beginning of deliberations. It tells them that they either must reach a unanimous verdict to impose the death penalty or a unanimous verdict to sentence a defendant to life without parole. Should a jury be split or deadlocked, a defendant will face a lesser penalty, such as a life sentence with the possibility of parole. As a result, jurors who may be troubled by the death penalty, but also concerned about a defendant’s future dangerousness, ultimately feel forced to impose the death penalty. Today’s court ruling invalidates the deadlock instruction.

Because the death penalty law, as written by New York State Legislature, mandates the jury deadlock instruction, today’s court ruling should preclude the death penalty for all nine persons currently on death row, the NYCLU said. It also should put a halt to capital punishment in the state until lawmakers rewrite the statute.

“The NYCLU has a long history of opposition to the death penalty, which invariably is applied in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner,” Lieberman said. “We hail today’s court decision as an important one and a victory for those seeking a more fair and judicious application of the law.”

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