Letter From The President Of The New York County Lawyers' Association

2007-11-01 00:00

To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:

NYCLA has long opposed the imposition of the death penalty as a means of punishment in New York. In this month's letter, I turn to the views of a longtime (49 years) NYCLA member and the paramount prosecutor in the nation to best express many of the reasons for continued opposition to the death penalty.

The following is an excerpt from testimony given by the District Attorney of New York County, Robert M. Morgenthau, on December 15, 2004 at a public hearing on the death penalty before the New York State Assembly Standing Committees on Codes, Judiciary and Correction:

The decision by the New York Court of Appeals in People v. LaValle , holding the current statutory sentencing scheme in capital cases unconstitutional, should have come as no great surprise to anyone familiar with death penalty litigation. Courts tend to be especially scrupulous when it comes to protecting the right to due process where the defendant's life is at stake.

The case against the death penalty has been made over the years in New York. In 1841, a report of the New York State Assembly recommended abolition of "punishment of death by law." More than a century later, in 1965, the Temporary Commission on the Revision of the Penal Law and the Criminal Code, chaired by Assemblyman Richard J. Bartlett, Republican of Glens Falls, concluded that the death penalty was a "barbarism," which had a "seriously baneful effect on the administration of criminal justice."

The public and their elected officials have short memories and capital punishment has always had its supporters, who see it as a response to fears of a rise in violent crime. In 1994, Congress enacted a new Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which increased the number from two to 60 federal offenses for which someone may be sentenced to death and created more than 60 new federal crimes for conduct already harshly punished under state law. Such provisions may be good politics but are not good law enforcement. I know of no law enforcement professional who believes the death penalty provisions and all the new crimes covered by the act have affected public safety in the slightest. The criminal laws we needed were already on the books. What was missing was the commitment to enforce them.

Some crimes are so depraved that execution might seem a just penalty. But even in the virtually impossible event that a statute could be crafted and applied so wisely that it would reach only those cases, the price would be too high. The death penalty is an endorsement for violent solutions and violence begets violence.

Executions waste scarce law enforcement, financial and personnel resources. Cost estimates vary from state to state, but all are high.

There are far better methods of reducing murders and other violent crimes than imposition of the death penalty. When I first took office in 1975, Manhattan led the city with 648 murders, 39 percent of the total citywide. In 2003, by contrast, there were 93 murders in Manhattan, the lowest number in any of the four major boroughs and only 16 percent of the city total. In fact, we now have fewer than half as many murders in Manhattan as in 1937, when, incidentally, the death penalty was in regular use. This reduction in crime was accomplished, in large part, by rigorously enforcing the law, assigning experienced and well-trained prosecutors to homicides and other serious cases early on in the process and concentrating resources on drug gangs and violent recidivists.


Catherine A. Christian

( NYCLA President Catherine A. Christian is a New York County Assistant District Attorney .)