New York invites its murderers to take a seat

As the death penalty returns, Daniel Jeffreys finds big city liberalism drowned out by a tide of angry Americans wanting vengeance
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"If you kill somebody, you deserve to die," says Susan Kraus, taking a sip of beer at Dudley's, a popular bar in Ossining, an affluent community of 35,000 people in New York state. "It's sad, but the victims deserve some recompense." Every morning Ms Kraus travels 65 minutes to New York City, where she works in a primary school. She says everybody she knows on her commuter train supports the death penalty for certain crimes. Ms Kraus is typical of the New York State residents who elected George Pataki, a Republican, as the state's governor last November. She's middle class but struggling, she's white and she lives in the suburbs.

"New Yorkers are not all liberal types," says Andrew Crain, who sits down the bar from Ms Kraus. "That's more a big city thing. Lots of us here are real glad the death penalty is back." So it is. Tomorrow New York will become the 38th state to make it legal to execute convicted murderers. The last execution in New York took place in 1963, right here in Ossining, home of the notorious Sing Sing prison, where the electric chair was invented, and once the death penalty capital of the United States. In the 20th century, New York has executed more than 1,300 citizens and outside Manhattan the state has nurtured a conservatism that rivals anything elsewhere in the country.

Sing Sing sits in the middle of Ossining, surrounded by houses built in the 18th and 19th centuries. After that it's neat colonial homes on leafy streets. The crime rate is about average for New York State, but the citizens are keen supporters of capital punishment. "There's a lot of enthusiasm here for the death penalty," says Officer Peter Volkman of the Ossining Police Department.

The old Sing Sing prison still has some electric chairs, though New York's Death Row prisoners will get a lethal injection - if any of them ever make it to the execution chamber. "That's the problem; we don't see any murderer getting executed here this century," says Officer Volkman. "Not once they get set on all their appeals. On average, in other states, it's taken eight years for a convicted murderer to get what's his. That makes our first execution in 2003 at the earliest."

Like many who live in Ossining, Officer Volkman has had a disturbing summer. In July, a double killing shocked the town. A 23-year-old man didn't like the "attitude" of another young man he met in the street and killed him with eight bullets from a semi-automatic weapon. He then reloaded and gave the same treatment to the dead man's girlfriend. This month a robber killed a store owner in broad daylight and seriously injured the shopkeeper's wife. "There's a perception that crime is creeping north up the Hudson River, from New York," says Officer Volkman. "People want a statement made."

Fifteen different categories of murder will become capital crimes in New York. All involve either crimes against public employees such as police officers or aggravated homicides in which the killing took place as part of another crime, such as robbery or rape. Experts say 20 per cent of New York's 2,400 murders each year will be classified as capital crimes. To cut down on appeals, anybody sentenced to death will immediately have their case sent to the state Supreme Court for review. New York officials are confident they can reduce the wait for execution to five years at most. To guard against racial discrimination, New York will be the only death penalty state with a commission to review the racial composition of its Death Row.

Both of Ossining's recent murders would qualify for the death penalty, provided the local District Attorney chose to treat them as capital crimes. But many DAs, mostly those in urban areas, will use their discretion and will not seek the death penalty. The District Attorneys in Manhattan and the Bronx have both expressed opposition to capital punishment. "We've seen a decline in the murder rate in the Bronx without the death penalty, so its value is dubious and it's morally wrong,"says Robert Johnson, DA in the Bronx.

Norman Siegel, president of the New York Civil Liberties Union, says that the prosecutors' discretion will create an unfair system. "Jeanine Pirro, the DA in Westchester County, is a keen supporter of the death penalty," says Mr Siegel. "So if you commit a crime on her patch, you'll get different treatment than you would in the Bronx. The DA for Staten Island, where the murder rate is high, says he won't seek the death penalty because each capital case would absorb his department's entire annual budget. The new law will be enforced arbitrarily and that will mean unequal treatment, which is unconstitutional."

Mr Siegel and the NYCLU plan a series of legal challenges to the death penalty law as soon as somebody is charged with capital murder. "We won't have to wait long," says Mr Siegel. "Republican prosecutors upstate will be tripping over each other to be the first with a capital murder case."

That will please Dennis Vacco, New York's Attorney General. He's forming special teams to help prosecutors with death penalty cases. "Nobody has tried such a case here in a generation, so our attorneys will need help," he says. "In the city, the homicide rate is down because they've sent so many to jail in the past 10 years. I expect New York to have a murder boom when that generation of killers gets back on the streets."

But Robert Johnson will stick to his guns. "Between 1962 and 1972 when we had the death penalty, 80 New York cops were slain. In the next decade, when we did not have executions, there were only 54 cop deaths. Just this year Jeanine Pirro had to release a man after eight years in prison when DNA tests proved he'd been wrongly convicted. If we'd had capital punishment he might already be dead."

Dennis Vacco brushes these criticisms aside. A feisty career prosecutor, he plans to create a rapid series of death penalty trials to counter claims that New York's executioner will only be a symbolic figure. "There is a degree of vengeance in any sentence and with some types of murder absolute vengeance should be part of the punishment."

Despite upstate conservatism, the first case will probably be in New York City. Charles Hynes, the Brooklyn DA, used to oppose capital punishment on practical grounds but has had a change of heart. "Three of my five children have been mugged recently," he says. "If I could have got my hands on the mugger then we would not have needed a death penalty."

Mr Hynes wants to run against Mr Vacco for Attorney General in the next election. "Like me," says Mr Hynes, "the people of Brooklyn want the death penalty, so I have a responsibility to do the first case." Which, of course, will be one of the most high-profile New York cases in recent history. New York politicians found that the death penalty wins votes - despite its expense.

"Capital murder trials cost on average $2.5m," says Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, where research is used to oppose capital punishment. "The investigations are much more expensive because juries set higher standards for evidence when there's a life at stake."

Randy Ertman says he still cries every night for his daughter. Jennifer Ertman was 14 years old when she was kidnapped, gang-raped and beaten to death by six Houston teenagers in 1993. Despite their young age, five of the six are now on Death Row in Texas while the sixth is serving a 40-year sentence. "I find it offensive that my taxes are keeping these killers on Death Row while they conduct endless appeals," he says. "Talk to the victims of violent crime. For them it's not just about justice, it's about closure."

Mr Ertman is filing a bill this week with a group of Texas politicians that, if passed, will give a victim's family the right to watch the killer's execution. "A killer's family has the right to be there, why not the victims? They watched my daughter die so I have the right to watch them die, then I can go on with my life."

Later today, the New York Civil Liberties Union will start a candle- lit vigil against the death penalty in Times Square. In the state capital of Albany, more than 300 miles away, Governor George Pataki will welcome the return of capital punishment with a big rally. This time what's left of New York City's liberalism is out of step with the rest of what is still predominantly a rural state. In the past 10 years the New York State Legislature voted to restore capital punishment nine times. Without the vetos of then-Governor Mario Cuomo, New York would have had the death penalty a long time ago.

In the shadow of Sing Sing prison is Gino's delicatessen. It is where the prison officers from the jail go for coffee, and they have some anxieties about tomorrow. "We heard the executions will take place in Greenhaven. That's not right," says one officer. "We should hold them here. It's traditional and we should use Old Sparky, the electric chair. This lethal injection stuff misses the point." His colleagues agree, all of them. From tomorrow, the executioner joins the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of New York State even though few believe it will cut back on crime. "So what?" says one prison officer. "If it might do any good at all we should have it here."

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