Maybe We Don't Want Albany Sausage

Rochester –
You've heard it said that politicians crafting law is a lot like butchers making sausage.

It's messy but the end product is digestible.

We wouldn't know that in New York this year. The Albany sausage-makers have been extraordinarily idle this year - even by their own already lethargic standards - with a budget undone as lawmakers take a summer break.

This past week gave us something else beside the undone budget story. It was a development that has to make you wonder if Albany even knows how to serve up decent law.

Since it was passed in 1995, the death penalty law in this state has been one rancid piece of legislation.

And now it has gotten a whole lot more rotten.

The New York Court of Appeals struck down as unconstitutional a key provision of the law. It compels judges to tell juries during the death penalty phase that they could either unanimously agree to death as a sentence or to life without parole. But the judge would also instruct that if the jury were deadlocked, then the judge must impose a penalty that includes the possibility of parole.

The Court of Appeals ruled that this amounted to coercion - forcing jurors to opt for a death sentence to avoid having a killer someday walk the streets.

And now the death penalty as it was applied to the few convicted murderers in this state - including Monroe County's Angel Mateo - is now struck down.

Funny thing was that the court decision by the judges voting in the majority pointed out that this flaw in the statute was known when lawmakers were debating the death penalty back in 1995.

And it was our own state Senator - Rick Dollinger of Brighton - who now winds up looking like something of a soothsayer.

The decision refers back to the March 6, 1995 debate records. They quote Dollinger as wondering how jurors would deal with the pressure of knowing that if they fail to agree on death, or on life without parole, they would allow a penalty from the judge that was less than the other two options.

Erie County State Sen. Dale Volker, a death penalty champion, argued that the overriding concern was to have jury unanimity for either of these harsh sentences, especially the death sentence.

"But isn't it inherently coercive to tell (the jurors) that you have to do this; otherwise there is going to be another penalty imposed?" Dollinger was quoted as asking.

Volker said the real constitutional problem would have been if they weren't given the consequences of a hung jury, not the set-up itself.

The Court of Appeals clearly agreed with Dollinger.

And what does this mean? That the death penalty law - the first initiative of the new Governor, George Pataki - was mangled and manhandled by the Albany sausage-makers to please every blessed constituency that might raise a complaint.

Back in December, then District Attorney Howard Relin said on WXXI's Need to Know program, that the death penalty law as it was crafted in New York was an abomination from the beginning.

"The law became a hodgepodge of different views on the death penalty," Relin said.
He added that the ugliness of the law has made it virtually impossible to actually use. No one has been put to death in this state.

Relin put the blame on the State Assembly, run by Democrats who had under former Democratic governors Mario Cuomo and Hugh Carey, stood firm in blocking the return of the death penalty in New York.

But surely the Dollinger-Volker debate also showed that backers of the death penalty in the Republican Party weren't applying much in the way of legislative savvy to the job either.

Now we hear that the legislature will likely take up the death penalty law again.

Then we chuckle.

Yeah, the same people who can't get any agreement on anything substantive in 2004.

Then we pause.

Sure we're all exasperated by the inertia of the state government in New York; the inactivity over the budget negotiations.
But then you look at 1995, a time when Albany makes historic death penalty legislation and couldn't seem to get it right.

Sausage making is ugly but the end product is supposed to be good on the grill.

But when it's overcooked and served to the public, who would want to have the blackened and shriveled thing.