New York has finally elected a governor who supports the death penalty. In all likelihood, it was George Pataki’s support for capital punishment, not his undistinguished political career, that secured his victory over the liberal incumbent, Mario Cuomo, who had vetoed a death penalty bill in every one of his 12 years in office. During Cuomo’s tenure, the city endured a long series of appalling crimes, from the rape and beating of a jogger in Central Park, the murderous assault by a black mob on a Jewish man in Crown Heights, to Jamaican immigrant Colin Ferguson’s massacre of 27 white commuters on a train bound for Long Island. It is easy to understand public demands for the death penalty, but less easy to predict whether the punishment will be codified in law.
New York has not always been soft on criminals. The state used to have a death penalty, and it executed thugs long after other states, following the example set by Delaware in 1958, did away with executions. But in 1965, under the influence of a state commission that included Professor Herbert Wechsler, a staunch opponent of capital punishment, the state ended the practice except in cases involving the murder of a police officer. Professor Wechsler contended that “death exerted no greater deterrent effect on murderers than life imprisonment.”
Yet the virtual elimination of capital punishment coincided with a sharp rise in rates of violent crime. In the aftermath of Bernhard Goetz’s shooting of four black thugs, the local media conducted a poll which found that no fewer than 50 percent of New Yorkers were in favor of capital punishment.
Despite police efforts to fight street crime by cleaning up high-crime areas like Times Square, and an increased police presence under the “Safe Streets, Safe City” program, the crime rate continued to rise, and the victims piled up: Utah tourist Brian Witkins; a visiting Soviet doctor; Hasidic scholar Yankel Rosenbaum; the victims of Colin Ferguson’s rampage against whitey. In the ten years since the Goetz episode, the percentage of New Yorkers favoring the death penalty rose to roughly 75 percent, due to the skyrocketing crime rate and to a widespread feeling that, as Goetz had put it, law enforcement in New York was a “farce.”
After two Dominican immigrants shot and killed police officer Sean McDonald last summer, when he caught them holding up a jewelry store in the Bronx, the Daily News conducted a poll to gauge public sentiment. Reporting the results, the News cited a “rising chorus of outraged New Yorkers demanding that the death penalty be restored.”
Yet Cuomo was unswervingly opposed to the death penalty, and Mayor David Dinkins dismissed concern about crime with boasts that New York’s murder rate is lower than that of other American cities. (Those other cities are Washington, Detroit, and East St. Louis, so Dinkins’s point isn’t clear.) Late in his career, Cuomo finally came to realize that his successive vetoes of death penalty bills amounted to a defiance of popular will, and he began to mumble about holding a referendum on capital punishment. But this was too little, too late.
Since his inauguration, Pataki has given several speeches reaffirming his commitment to capital punishment. The case of Reuben Harris, a man with a long criminal record who recently escaped from his captors and pushed an elderly woman in front of a subway train, did little to dampen public anger about crime and the justice system’s laxity.
The death penalty may become law, but any bill Pataki signs is likely to be so watered down that its effect will be minimal at best. According to the Times, the New York Civil Liberties Union is gearing up for an all-out battle to prevent the restoration of capital punishment and is also preparing a contingency plan involving the insertion of bogus “racial justice” clauses into a death penalty bill. These stipulations will require courts to show that racial bias did not affect the outcome of trials involving black criminals.
The Times also reports that “some lawyers have called for sequestered pretrial questioning of individual jurors about their views on race.” (Emphasis added.) With the definition of “racism” now encompassing a thousand different things, there are probably very few people who would qualify for jury duty under such rules. Any jury that passes muster with the interrogators will probably be comprised of devout “progressives” predisposed to acquit a black defendant.
We can expect to hear the liberal platitudes about how the death penalty is “racist” and docs not really deter crime. Never mind statistics showing that states frequently experience a drop in violent crime after complementing capital punishment, and never mind that even in this age of race riots and “gangsta” warfare, more whites than blacks go to the electric chair.