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Death penalty returns to Albany Trooper's death spurs advocates

The string of police deaths across New York the past couple of years, including Wednesday's slaying of State Trooper David C. Brinkerhoff, has fortified those pushing to renew capital punishment for those convicted of killing law enforcement officials.

And though they have been thwarted in the past by a Democratic Assembly, death penalty advocates say they have a new weapon: Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer.

For years, the governor has said he supports the death penalty in certain cases, but especially for the murder of police officers. Now, death penalty supporters want him to pressure his Democratic allies in the Assembly -- as he did with several long-stalled bills earlier this year -- to bring back capital punishment.

"We need the governor to get this bill passed in the Assembly," said State Sen. Martin Golden, R-Brooklyn, a former New York City police officer who is sponsoring a death penalty bill that is poised to pass the State Senate again next week.

Brinkerhoff, who grew up in the Southtowns, was gunned down Wednesday by a fugitive in the foothills of the Catskills.

For Andrew Sperr, a resident of Greece in Monroe County, this has become a highly personal mission.

"I sincerely believe that some police officer lives could be saved if they pass this legislation," Sperr said Thursday.

Brinkerhoff's death brought back painful memories for Sperr, whose son, Andrew, a state trooper, was killed last year by two bank robbers -- one of whom, according to court testimony, mentioned that there was no death penalty in the state before shooting the officer.

In January, Sperr got a phone call from Spitzer just hours before his State of the State message. The governor told Sperr he would be mentioning his son in the speech.

I specifically asked [Spitzer]" his stance on the death penalty, Sperr said.

"You know what my position is on the death penalty," replied Spitzer, according to Sperr.

"Yes, sir, but I'd like to hear it from the horse's mouth," Sperr said.

"I'm for it," the new governor said, according to Sperr.

Sperr, who has joined a recent lobbying push to enact the death penalty in cases of law enforcement slayings, said he again reminded Spitzer of his conversation when the two met Monday -- two days before Brinkerhoff was killed.

Thursday, the union representing State Police officers added its voice to the chorus.
"We certainly are not going to maintain that the death penalty is any kind of panacea, but this Legislature has a duty to do everything possible to protect our police officers who are protecting society," said Daniel M. De Federicis, president of the Police Benevolent Association of the New York State Troopers.

Restoring the death penalty, even in a limited version, faces enormous hurdles in Albany. Polls also show a recent national disenchantment with he death penalty.

Though its passage is assured in the Republican-controlled Senate, efforts to restore it in the Democratic-led Assembly have been thwarted. There, legislators say it is not a deterrent, too costly and point to people wrongly convicted. Just this week, an amendment to tack on a death penalty provision to a gun-control bill was soundly defeated in the Assembly.

"I will be tough," said Assemblywoman RoAnn Destito, an Oneida County Democrat and sponsor of death penalty legislation for those who kill police officers.

Meanwhile, David Kaczynski, executive director of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty, said that Democratic opposition in the Assembly appears solid.

"I'm not hearing anything that would suggest people are moving away from that very sound and solid position," he said.

The last time the Legislature restored the death penalty, in 1995, it was struck down in 2004 by the state's highest court. There have been no state executions since.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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