Foss: Cuomo’s death penalty announcement largely symbolic

Statute is still on the books, but is, for all intents and purposes, dead already
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in January
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in January

Eddie Lee Mays. 

For most people, an unfamiliar name. 

But Mays is a significant, if obscure, footnote in state history. 

On Aug. 15, 1963, Mays became the last person executed in New York state, in the electric chair at Sing Sing. He was convicted of murdering a woman during a robbery in Harlem. 

In New York, the death penalty has long been obsolete.

In 2004, the state’s top court ruled that New York’s death penalty law was unconstitutional. The statute has remained on the books, but there’s been little interest in addressing the court’s concerns and making the law workable. The law is, for all intents and purposes, dead. 

Which might explain why I was so mystified last week when Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that he would push legislation to strike the death penalty from state law. 

I don’t support the death penalty and never have, but I find it tough to get excited about Cuomo’s sudden zeal for ridding the state of its long-dormant death penalty statute. 

His announcement is largely symbolic, timed to capitalize on Pope Francis’ recent statement that the death penalty is “inadmissible in all cases.” 

If anything, Cuomo’s willingness to speak out on the issue suggests that opposing the death penalty is no longer the political liability it once was. 

After all, it’s widely believed that former Gov. Mario Cuomo’s opposition to the death penalty — over the course of three terms, he vetoed death penalty legislation 12 consecutive times — contributed to his surprise loss in 1994 to former Gov. George Pataki.

The elder Cuomo’s death penalty opposition was “a courageous act with political risk,” James Acker, a death penalty expert and distinguished teaching professor at the University at Albany’s School of Criminal Justice, told me. 

But that’s no longer the case, and I suspect the younger Cuomo knows it. 

In the mid-1990s, nearly 80 percent of those polled by Gallup said they supported the death penalty. By 2017, support for the death penalty had taken a significant dive, with a slight majority, 55 percent, saying they were in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder. 

Acker attributed the decline in support for the death penalty to a number of factors, including the nationwide drop in crime and the number of innocent people revealed to have been on death row. 

Certainly, I have friends who have changed their minds on the death penalty, largely as a result of revelations of wrongful convictions. This troubling track record prompted even people who regard death as a reasonable consequence for murder to question whether the state should be entrusted with the momentous task of sentencing people to die.

“There are multiple signs that the country as a whole is becoming disenchanted with the death penalty,” Acker said. “The trend since the turn of the century has been decisively downward.”  

This doesn’t mean there’s no value to removing the death penalty from state law.

Should the Supreme Court ever rule on whether the death penalty constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, opposition from states is one of the things they’d look at before making a decision. 

In the decade-and-a-half since the Court of Appeals ruled that New York’s death penalty law is unconstitutional, six other states have done away with the death penalty. Just 39 people were sentenced to death in 2017, down from 350 a year in the mid-1990s. 

It would be nice to see New York finally kill off its death penalty statute and join with other states in saying that the death penalty “demeans those who strive to preserve human life and dignity,” as Mario Cuomo once put it. 

But doing so isn’t necessary, or urgent. 

New York has already moved on from the death penalty. 

And the state is all the better for it. 

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. 

Categories: News, Opinion, Schenectady County

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