New York's Death Penalty Law Declared Unconstitutional: People v. Stephen LaValle

New York and the Death Penalty

New York's Death Penalty Law Declared Unconstitutional
DPIC Summary: People v. Stephen LaValle

On June 24, 2004, New York's highest court held that the state's jury instructions were unconstitutional under the state constitution and that the constitutional defect in the existing statute could only be cured by passage of a new law by the legislature. The Court of Appeals vacated the death sentence of Stephen LaValle, concluding that the jurors might impose the death penalty on a defendant whom they believed did not deserve it simply because they feared that the defendant might someday be released.

The court remanded the case to the Supreme Court of Suffolk County and instructed the trial court to impose a sentence of life imprisonment without parole or a sentence of 20 to 25 years to life.
New York's Deadlock Instruction

Pursuant to New York’s death penalty statute at the time, once a defendant was found guilty, the trial court instructed the jurors to decide whether the defendant should be sentenced to death or to life without parole. Either choice had to be unanimous. The trial court further instructed the jurors, as required by the statute, that if they failed to agree, the court would sentence the defendant to life imprisonment with parole eligibility after serving a minimum of 20 to 25 years.

This instruction is referred to as a "deadlock instruction," and it is unique among death penalty laws in other jurisdictions in that the sentence required after a deadlock is less severe than the sentences the jury is allowed to consider. No other death penalty scheme in the country requires judges to instruct jurors that, if they cannot unanimously agree between two choices, the judge will sentence defendant to a third, more lenient, choice. (See New York’s Criminal Procedure Law 400.27 (10))

Coercive Effect of Statute’s Deadlock Instruction on Juries

In New York, a defendant's future dangerousness is not a statutory aggravator that the jury is told to consider. However, the court held that the deadlock instruction might interject a fear that if jurors do not reach unanimity, the defendant would be paroled in 20 years and pose a threat to society. In light of the jurors' likely concerns over the defendant's future dangerousness, jurors who are otherwise inclined toward life without parole might be pushed toward favoring death because they see the sentencing choice as one between death and life with parole. The choice of death, the court voted, results not through "a comparison of views, and by arguments among the jurors themselves," but through fear and coercion. By interjecting future dangerousness, the deadlock instruction gives rise to an unconstitutional risk that one or more jurors will join others favoring death in order to avoid the more lenient sentence that would follow a deadlock.

The New York court considered whether the statute afforded the due process guaranteed under Article I, section 6 of the State Constitution. The court quoted the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Woodson v North Carolina, stating that because death is qualitatively different from other sentences, there is a "corresponding difference in the need for reliability in the determination that death is the appropriate punishment in a specific case." The court found that under New York's current death penalty scheme, whether a juror chooses death or life without the possibility of parole, "the choice is driven by the fear that a deadlock may result in the eventual release of the defendant." The choice is not, as it should be, the result of a reasoned understanding that it was the appropriate one.

Jury Behavior Studies Informed Court's Decision

The court considered several scientific studies of jury behavior noting that "these studies provide the best available insight into jury behavior." The court cited Bowers & Steiner, Death by Default: An Empirical Demonstration of False and Forced Choices in Capital Sentencing, 77 Tex. L. Rev. 605, 648 (1999) – a study that found that jurors tend to "grossly underestimate how long capital murderers not sentenced to death usually stay in prison."

The Bowers & Steiner study concluded that the "sooner jurors think a defendant will be released from prison, the more likely they are to vote for death and the more likely they are to see the defendant as dangerous."

A South Carolina study also cited by the court found that jurors who served in capital cases "confirm[ed] that jurors' deliberations emphasize dangerousness and that misguided fears of early release generate death sentences." Eisenberg & Wells, Deadly Confusion: Juror Instructions in Capital Cases, 79 Cornell L. Rev. 1, 4 (1993).

Absence of Any Deadlock Provision Also Unconstitutional

The U.S. Supreme Court in Jones v. United States held that "the Eighth Amendment [to the Federal Constitution] does not require that the jury be instructed as to the consequence of their failure to agree." However, the New York court declined to adopt Jones, and held that the Due Process Clause of the New York Constitution requires a higher standard of fairness than that required by the Federal Constitution. The court concluded that the absence of any instruction is no better than the current instruction, noting that the absence of an instruction could lead to death sentences that are based on speculation. The court remarked that absent any instruction, jurors might fear that the failure to reach a unanimous verdict would lead to a defendant's release, retrial, or a sentence of even lesser term.

The court concluded that a legislative solution is required stating, "[w]e have the power to eliminate an unconstitutional sentencing procedure, but we do not have the power to fill the void with a different procedure, particularly one that potentially imposes a greater sentence than the possible deadlock sentence that has been prescribed." The court has "no power to supply even an inadvertent omission of the legislature." For these reasons, under the present statute, the death penalty may not be imposed.

Two prior death sentences had previously been overturned by the New York Court of Appeals on other grounds. The LaValle ruling likely serves to invalidate the three remaining death sentences in New York and forecloses any new death sentences unless a new statute is enacted.

See more information on New York and the Death Penalty.

The court's opinion in People v. Stephen LaValle is available on the State of New York Court of Appeals Web site: