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A MORAL DECISION
ASSEMBLY PANEL'S REJECTION OF DEATH PENALTY RECOGNIZES THE SYSTEM'S INHERENT PROBLEM

The Assembly did New Yorkers a favor the other day when its Codes Committee rejected a plan to repair New York's voided death penalty statute, plausibly reasoning that a sentence of life without possibility of parole is sufficient punishment. It might also have added that you can't fix that which is irreparable.

With the national example of innocent Americans wrongly convicted in capital cases, no state can morally cling to a practice that cannot surmount the fatal flaws of human nature: incorrect identifications by witnesses, improper actions by police and prosecutors and incompetence by defense attorneys. Those problems and others have turned up time and again as crusaders turn up not just evidence but incontrovertible proof that the death penalty system cannot reliably distinguish between the guilty and the innocent.

As to the need for the law, crime has plummeted around the state, especially in New York City, without a single execution ever having occurred. The death penalty was restored in New York shortly after Gov. George Pataki took office in 1995, and while the sentence has been imposed, it has never been carried out. Better policing, changing demographics and declining drug use have driven down crime rates, not the death penalty.

The opportunity to ditch this law arose last year when the Court of Appeals ruled that the statute's requirements could unfairly sway a jury toward imposing a death sentence instead of its other choice, life in prison without the possibility of parole. Given the problems inherent in any death penalty statute, the state's declining crime rate and the perfectly acceptable alternative of life in prison, the Assembly committee made the right and moral choice.

Death penalty advocates, including Sen. Dale Volker, R-Depew, insist they will try again next year to restore the death penalty, but they should leave well enough alone. It would be unseemly to play election-year politics with a punishment that has almost certainly been carried out against people who were innocent of the crime for which they were convicted.

Isn't it better to err on the side of caution, and sentence the innocent only to life without parole? That at least would give the wrongly convicted a chance for justice, and society a chance for redemption.

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