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Death Penalty

Respect for Precedent Swings Dissenter to Majority in NY Capital Case

Posted Oct 23, 2007 1:48 PM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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A justice who dissented when New York’s highest court struck down the state’s death penalty law in 2004 said in a 4-3 opinion (PDF) today that the precedent required him to switch sides.

The court ruled in the case of a man on death row for killing five Wendy’s employees, the New York Daily News reports. The ruling means defendant John Taylor will be resentenced to life without parole.

Today’s majority ruling affirms the 2004 decision, People v. LaValle, which held the state law contained an unconstitutionally coercive jury deadlock instruction, the New York Times reports in its City Room blog. The instruction required judges to tell jurors if they did not unanimously agree on a sentence of death or life without parole, the defendant could possibly be paroled in 20 to 25 years.

“I continue to think LaValle was an unjustified interference with legislative authority,” Justice Robert Smith wrote today in his concurrence. “But, as I pointed out above, LaValle did not render the legislature powerless. The legislature can, if it has the will, repair the death penalty statute or repeal it. In doing either, it would bring the capital punishment issue back into the realm of democratic decision-making, where it belongs.”

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