Andrew Cuomo (pictured), who served as U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development from 1997 to 2001, recently urged New York lawmakers to put an end to the death penalty. The state is holding hearings on capital punishment in the wake of a N.Y. Court of Appeals decision finding the statute unconstitutional earlier this year. In his op-ed in The New York Times, Cuomo noted:

The Democrats, who control the Assembly, should make it clear that they will not pass a new death penalty law. This will take courage, but it is vital that they do so: We cannot rely much longer on a progressive Court of Appeals to intercede and prevent executions, as has happened since 1995, when the death penalty was reinstituted in New York. (Mr. Pataki had vowed to reinstate the death penalty in his campaign against my father, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo.) As judges appointed by Governor Cuomo retire over the next few years, Governor Pataki will install more conservative court members.

More important, there remains no evidence that the death penalty is a deterrent to crime and plenty of evidence that it is invoked arbitrarily - and often mistakenly. Last year, 267 inmates nationwide had their death sentences overturned or removed, according to the Justice Department. This is the largest number in any year since 1976, when the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of state death-penalty laws in a group of states.

Other developments since 1995 have also mirrored the growing doubts about capital punishment. In 2000, Gov. George Ryan of Illinois, a Republican who had supported the death penalty, imposed a moratorium on all executions in his state, citing instances in which death-row inmates were found to be innocent. And a report issued in November by the Justice Department reveals that death sentences nationally are now at a 30-year low.

At the same time, cases in which DNA evidence has established the innocence of people convicted of capital crimes - along with concerns about racial bias in death-penalty sentencing - have further undercut support for capital punishment around the country. According to a 2004 Gallup Poll, about half of all Americans say that convicted murderers should get the death penalty. But just under half instead support a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Public opinion has been shifting toward this second option, according to the Gallup organization. The poll also showed that 62 % of Americans believe that capital punishment does not act as a deterrent, compared with 51 percent in 1991.

Nor does capital punishment make sense financially. Many studies show that it is more expensive for taxpayers to pursue executions than to sentence criminals to life without parole. Indeed, New York State has spent at least $160 million pursuing the death penalty since 1995.

Unfortunately, the prevailing thinking in Albany is that opposition to the death penalty is “political suicide.” I disagree. While the public overall still favors the death penalty, public opinion in New York has been shifting. A poll conducted in 2003 by Quinnipiac University shows that a majority of New York Democrats oppose the death penalty and that a majority of all New Yorkers favor sentences of mandatory life without parole over execution. Such sentences did not exist in the state when the death penalty law was passed in 1995.

Leadership can change public opinion, and this shifting point of view may become even more pronounced if the Assembly Democrats wage an intense debate on the issue, informing people of the facts - and of the shortcomings of the bills awaiting action in the Legislature. While other states are instituting safeguards against police and prosecutorial misconduct and ensuring protection for mentally ill defendants in capital cases, for example, these issues are not addressed in the governor’s or Senate’s proposals.

For the public, the debate can begin as early as this week. The first of a series of public hearings on the death penalty is to be held in New York City on Wednesday.

The Court of Appeals ruling that suspended the state’s death penalty has given New Yorkers a window of opportunity, a moment to enact a real reform. It should not be lost.

(New York Times, December 12, 2004) (emphasis added). See New Voices. See DPIC’s Web page on New York Court of Appeals Ruling. Note: Hearings on the death penalty were held in Manhattan on December 15. Additional hearings will be held in Albany on January 25.