Death penalty is a deterrent
George E. Pataki, Governor of New York State
SEPT. 1, 1995, marked the end of a long fight for justice in New York and the beginning of a new era in our state that promises safer communities, fewer victims of crime, and renewed personal freedom. For 22 consecutive years, my predecessors had ignored the urgent calls for justice from our citizens their repeated and pressing demands for the death penalty in New York State. Even after the legislature passed a reinstatement of the capital punishment law, it was vetoed for 18 years in a row. (Twelve of those vetoes came from the pen of former Gov. Mario Cuomo.)
That was wrong. To fight and deter crime effectively, individuals must have every tool government can afford them, including the death penalty. Upon taking office, I immediately began the process of reinstating the death penalty. Two months later, I signed the death penalty into law for the most heinous and ruthless killers in our society.
Protecting the residents of New York against crime and violence is my first priority. Indeed, it is the most fundamental duty of government. For too long, coddling of criminals allowed unacceptable levels of violence to permeate the streets. They were not subject to swift and certain punishment and, as a result, violent criminal acts were not deterred.
For more than two decades, New York was without the death penalty. During this time, fear of crime was compounded by the fact that, too often, it largely went unpunished.
No more. In New York, the death penalty has turned the tables on fear and put it back where it belongs-in the hearts of criminals. Within just one year, the death penalty helped produce a dramatic drop in violent crime. Just as important, it has restored New Yorkers' confidence in the justice system because they know their government genuinely is committed to their safety.
Honest, hard-working people share my vision for a safer New York, a place where children can play outside without worry; parents can send their kids to school with peace of mind; people can turn to each other on any street corner, in any subway, at any hour, without casting a suspicious eye; and New York citizens of all races, religions, and ages pull together and stand firm against crime.
In short, we are creating a state where law-abiding citizens have unlimited freedom from crime - a state where all can raise a family and follow their dreams in neighborhoods, streets, and schools that are free from the scourge of crime and violence. We've made tremendous progress. Although the death penalty has contributed to that progress, it's just one facet of New York's broad anti-crime strategy.
Other major reforms include substantially increasing the sentences for all violent criminals; eliminating parole eligibility for virtually all repeat violent offenders; barring murderers and sex offenders from participating in work release programs; toughening penalties for perpetrators of domestic violence; notifying communities as to the whereabouts of convicted sex offenders; overturning court created criminal-friendly loopholes to make it easier to prosecute violent criminals; and allowing juries to impose a sentence of life without parole for killers.
These new laws are working. Since I took office in 1995, violent crime has dropped 23, assaults are down 22, and murders have dropped by nearly one-third. New Yorkers now live in safer communities because we finally have begun to create a climate that protects and empowers our citizens, while giving criminals good cause to fear arrest and conviction. I believe this has occurred in part because of the strong signal that the death penalty and our other tough new laws sent to violent criminals and murderers: You will be punished with the full force of the law. Shortly before the death penalty went into effect, I listened to the families of 20 murder victims as they told of their pain. No loved ones should have to go through such a wrenching experience. I never will forget the words of Janice Hunter, whose 27-year-old daughter, Adrien, was stabbed 47 times by serial killer Nathaniel White in 1992. Mrs. Hunter spoke for every family member when she said, "It's a heartache that all parents suffer. I have to go to the cemetery to see my daughter. Nathaniel White's mother goes to jail to see him and I don't think it's fair." Although no law can bring back Mrs. Hunter's daughter, our laws can and must take every responsible step to prevent others from enduring the heartache suffered by her and her family. Before becoming Governor, I supported the death penalty because of my firm conviction that it would act as a significant deterrent and provide a true measure of justice to murder victims and their loved ones.
I know, as do most New Yorkers, that by restoring the death penalty, we have saved lives. Somebody's mother, somebody's brother, somebody's child is alive today because we were strong enough to be tough enough to care enough to do what was necessary to protect the innocent. Preventing a crime from being committed ultimately is more important than punishing criminals after they have shattered innocent lives.
No case illustrates this point more clearly than that of Arthur Shawcross. In 1973, Shawcross, one of New York's most ruthless serial killers, was convicted of the brutal rape and murder of two children in upstate New York. Since the death penalty had been declared unconstitutional, Shawcross was sentenced to prison. After serving just 15 years-an absurd prison term given the crime-he was paroled in 1988. In a horrific 21-month killing spree, Shawcross took 11 more lives. That is 11 innocent people who would be alive today had justice been served 24 years ago; 11 families that would have been spared the pain and agony of losing a loved one.
By reinstating the death penalty, New York has sent a clear message to criminals that the lives of our children are worth more than just a IS-year prison term. Moreover, it has given prosecutors the legal wherewithal to ensure New York State never has another Arthur Shawcross. Applying the ultimate punishment Too often, we are confronted with wanton acts of violence that cry out for justice. The World Trade Center bombing and the murderous rampage on the Long Island Rail Road by Colin Ferguson are but two examples. The slaying of a police officer in the line of duty is another. To kill a police officer is to commit an act of war against civilized society.
A person who knowingly commits such a heinous act poses a serious threat to us all, for government can not protect citizens without doing everything it can to protect those charged with our safety. Police officers put their lives on the line, not knowing whether their next traffic stop or call to duty will be their last.
Under New York's death penalty law, those who murder a police officer; a probation, parole, court, or corrections officer; a judge; or a witness or member of a witness' family can face the death penalty. Someone who murders while already serving life in prison, escaping from prison, or committing other serious felonies can face the death penalty.
Contract killers, serial murderers, those who torture their victims, or those who have murdered before also can be sentenced to death. In determining whether the death penalty should be imposed on anyone convicted of first-degree murder, the bill expressly authorizes juries to hear and consider additional evidence whenever the murder was committed as part of an act of terrorism or by someone with two or more prior serious felony convictions.
New York's death penalty is crafted carefully so that only the most inhuman murderers are eligible for it. Upon the conviction of the defendant, a separate sentencing phase is conducted during which the original jury, or a new jury under special circumstances, weighs the facts of the case.
The jury must consider the defendant's prior criminal history, mental capacity, character, background, state of mind, and the extent of his or her participation in the crime. It then compares this evidence with the facts. For the death penalty to be imposed, the jury must reach a verdict unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt.
Our state lived without adequate protection for 22 years. That is 22 years too long. Now, finally, we have begun to empower New Yorkers with the legal tools they need to make their communities safe.
At the same time, we have put lawless sociopaths like Arthur Shawcross on notice. The time that Shawcross spent in prison was not punishment; it was a mere inconvenience that offered New Yorkers nothing more than a 15-year moratorium from his murderous acts.
Our resolve to end crime is only as strong as the laws we pass to punish criminals. By making the death penalty the law of the land in New York, we have demonstrated that resolve, thus strengthening the promise that our children and future generations will grow up in a state that is free of violence. The death penalty and the other tough initiatives we have passed are just the beginning of an aggressive and comprehensive plan to reclaim our streets and give New Yorkers back the fundamental freedoms they too often felt had been lost to crime and violence. We will continue to do whatever is necessary to ensure that the lives of New Yorkers are unencumbered by violence, and that is why we will continue to pass laws that give our people unlimited Freedom to pursue their hopes and dreams.