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Bid to restore state death penalty fails

Gov. George E. Pataki's attempt to restore the death penalty for killing a police officer was scuttled Wednesday, as he and state lawmakers agreed on a new law requiring mandatory sentences of life without parole for those convicted of such crimes.

In the special session called by Pataki after two recent killings of New York City police officers, the Legislature also backed tougher penalties for selling or possessing illegal firearms.

Pataki's plan would have restored a part of the state's now defunct death penalty law, which became unusable last year after the state's highest court tossed out a key sentencing provision. The Democratic-led Assembly's rejection of the latest death penalty proposal cemented a movement to block restoration of a law Pataki had hailed as his top criminal justice achievement when it was adopted in 1995.

Legislators, however, acknowledged that death penalty advocates lost a major battle when the Assembly declined to back the measure for those who kill police officers.

"We are getting a result, and life without parole is a lot better than where we are now in terms of punishment," said State Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, R-Brunswick.

While halting the death penalty measure, the Assembly Democrats suffered a political defeat Wednesday with the gun trafficking bill.

They backed down from threats not to pass any bill unless it included new restrictions on gun dealers and banned possession of armor-piercing bullets. The gun lobby opposed both provisions.

"What we're doing is closing the front door but leaving the back door wide open," Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, said of Wednesday's deal that he insisted does not go far enough to keep guns out of the hands of criminals.

The new law will mandate a sentence of life without parole for anyone convicted of intentionally killing a police officer; current law gives sentencing judges discretion of life without parole or sentences of 20 to 25 years to life, with parole.

The new law also provides longer prison terms for attempting to kill or menacing a police officer with a weapon.

The gun trafficking bill will sharply increase penalties for possession and sale of illegal guns. Current law treats possession of as many as 20 such guns as a misdemeanor.

The new law, signed Wednesday night by Pataki, lowers to three the number of illegal guns that would be considered a felony, punishable by at least two years in prison. Possessing 10 or more illegal guns can lead to 10 years in prison.

Pataki and Silver had sought stronger sanctions against armor-piercing bullets, which Senate Republicans opposed. That provision was dropped, Pataki said, to focus on winning approval of the gun trafficking and police protection measures.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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