October 23, 2007

The Logic of Thug-Huggers

Hatched by Dafydd

I've said many times that I agree with those who say "all human life has value."

No, really I do; all human life does have value: But sometimes, that "value" is a negative number. Take John B. Taylor, for instance... please:

Mr. Taylor was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to death at his trial in Queens in 2000. He and an accomplice, Craig Godineaux, were found to have forced seven people into a walk-in freezer at the Wendy’s in Flushing, bound and gagged them, then placed them on their knees before shooting each in the head.

Two of the victims survived, and testified at Mr. Taylor’s trial. (Mr. Godineaux, who is mildly retarded, pleaded guilty to murder in the case and is serving a life sentence without parole.)

I have a hard time understanding why anybody would have a hard time understanding this verdict. There is no real dispute that Taylor did it; no new, exonerating evidence has emerged... and he isn't even a Mexican national, allowing his pending execution to be overturned on grounds that he had not been allowed to chat with President Felipe Calderón before being tried. And yet...

Closing a chapter on one of the bloodiest crimes in recent New York City history, the state’s highest court today tossed out the death sentence imposed on a man for his role in the murders of five workers at a Wendy’s restaurant in Queens seven years ago.

The man, John B. Taylor, was the last remaining inmate on New York State’s death row.

The divided decision by the Court of Appeals [4-3] not only ordered the trial court to resentence Mr. Taylor -- almost certainly to life in prison without parole -- but it also reaffirmed a landmark decision in 2004 that effectively invalidated the state’s death penalty law.

Now why, you may ask, was Taylor's death sentence overturned? What was the great legal, moral, or substantive principle that required the Court of Appeals -- which, oddly enough, is the highest court in the state, while the lower trial court is called "the Supreme Court of the State of New York" -- to invalidate Taylor's death sentence?

It turns out to be so clear that even a death-penalty advocate such as myself would be likely... nay, driven to acknowledge the essential injustice the court sought to prevent. (Note for the irony impaired; this is an ironical sentence: I say one thing but actually mean the opposite.) It has to do with an "anticipatory" instruction given the jury in capital cases:

Under current state law, if a jury cannot reach a unanimous verdict on the question of death, the trial judge is required to tell the panelists that a sentence, to include parole, will be automatically imposed. The Court of Appeals ruled in a split decision in 2004 that such jury instructions were unconstitutional, because they could coerce deadlocked jurors to vote for death out of a fear that a violent defendant might one day walk free.

It was out of deference to that case, People v. LaValle, that the court tossed out Mr. Taylor’s death sentence today, basing its decision largely on the principle of “stare decisis,” a Latin term meaning “let the decision stand.”

So let's get this straight:

  1. The Court of Appeals originally decided in 2004, by another 4-3 decision, that New York's death penalty was unconstitutional because jurors were informed -- truthfully -- that in the event of a deadlock, the judge would have to impose a sentence that still included the possiblity of parole... which was not one of the two possibilities available to the jury (they could only consider either death or life without parole, "LWOP").

Thus, the court reasoned:

What, then, is the consequence of telling the jury that it may not impose a sentence of life with parole eligibility after 20 to 25 years, but that the court will impose that sentence if the jury cannot agree? The deadlock instruction interjects the fear that if jurors do not reach unanimity, the defendant may be paroled in 20 years and pose a threat to society in the future. Yet, in New York a defendant's future dangerousness is not a statutory aggravator the jury may consider.

Clearly the intent of this instruction was to inhibit endless bickering on the part of the jury; the court argued that a juror might be pressured to "impose the death penalty on a defendant whom they believed did not deserve it simply because they fear that the defendant would not serve a life sentence." But wouldn't they be equally entitled to impose a sentence of LWOP?

There is no reason to presume such pressure would push one way any stronger or weaker than the other, as either decision would avoid the possibility of parole. The only pressure is for the jury to come to some decision -- not any particular decision.

This is why, I suspect, half the court dissented. Nevertheless, one of those dissenters, Judge Robert S. Smith, joined the majority today in tossing out the sentence of John Taylor. But why? Simple, and it brings us to the second prong of New York's right pranging:

  1. Then today, the principle of "stare decisis" rose up and so overwhelmed Judge Smith that he affirmed the asinine decision he, himself dissented from three years ago and applied it to the decision today.

Thus is great nonsense perpetuated, and imprudent jurisprudence drives out the good. Is it really rational to toss out a state's death penalty because jurors are threatened with the defendant getting a lesser sentence -- if they can't agree on which of the two available harsher sentences to impose?

Stare decisis is the principle that previous judicial understandings of the law should not be lightly put aside, because there is virtue in having a predictable, stable rule of law. But it has never been an absolute prohibition -- else we would still be operating under Plessy v. Ferguson, which required “equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races.”

Rather, stare decisis is just one factor a justice (in New York, "justices" on the Court of Appeals are called "judges") must weigh in deciding whether to overturn a precedent: But if the error is great enough, it must overcome the judicial inertia imposed by stare decisis. And in this case, I think the original LaValle decision was so stupid and contrary to the will of the state legislature that, at the very least, those who dissented in LaValle itself should also have dissented here.

I'm quite sure that the four judges who imposed the LaValle decision on the state -- and then extended it to strike down the entire death penalty -- were legislating from the bench. All but one of the majority judges in LaValle were appointed by Gov. Cuomo, while all of the dissenters were appointed by Gov. Pataki; and restoration of the death penalty was a major issue in the 1994 campaign of Pataki against Cuomo, probably a major reason Pataki was elected.

(The lone exception was Judge Albert Rosenblatt, who concurred with the majority; he was appointed in 1998 by Pataki. Rosenblatt was viewed as a "moderate" even by the New York Times, which praised his selection in an editorial -- contrasting Rosenblatt with the "blindly pro-prosecution judges" Pataki appointed in his first term... not a very good sign, in my opinion.)

Since 2004, Judge Rosenblatt retired and was replaced by another Pataki appointee: Eugene F. Pigott. Since today's ruling was also 4-3, despite the defection of Judge Smith, that must mean that Judge Pigott dissented, holding that Taylor's death sentence was valid.

Thus, because of one judge's fetishistic love of stare decisis -- believing it even applies to rulings he considers incorrect -- New York blew a perfect opportunity to revisit the mistake of LaValle itself. As Judge Smith admits in his concurring opinion in the Taylor case:

I thought, and still think, that LaValle was wrong in holding the redesign to be required, but the harm done by the error does not justify casting stare decisis aside.

Color me disrespectful of the past and of bad precedent, but I strongly dissent from Judge Smith's opinion -- joining three of the seven judges, who also dissent.

The will of the people of the state of New York was cast down and stamped upon by the Court of Appeals in People v. LaValle... and the pieces were just spat upon today in People v. John Taylor. Feh.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, October 23, 2007, at the time of 7:03 PM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this hissing: http://biglizards.net/mt3.36/earendiltrack.cgi/2523


The following hissed in response by: MarkJM

Hmmm. I wonder if the decision may have been different if Taylor and Godineaux had stormed into a courthouse, bound, gagged and executed seven judges?

The above hissed in response by: MarkJM [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 24, 2007 4:35 AM

The following hissed in response by: BarbaraS

In view of this decision justice can only be served by making Taylor make big rocks into little rocks for 16 hours a day with no time for tv, computers, or frivilous lawsuits for the rest of his natural life.

The above hissed in response by: BarbaraS [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 24, 2007 5:20 AM

Post a comment

Thanks for hissing in, . Now you can slither in with a comment, o wise. (sign out)

(If you haven't hissed a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Hang loose; don't shed your skin!)

Remember me unto the end of days?

© 2005-2009 by Dafydd ab Hugh - All Rights Reserved