New Yorkers are justly proud of the Manhattan-based Innocence Project, founded by Peter Newfield and Barry Scheck in association with Yeshiva University, and the work its lawyers and advocates have done in recent years to free those wrongly accused of serious crimes. Through the use of DNA evidence, the Innocence Project has reminded us that our criminal justice system is not without flaws—serious flaws—and that we are fools if we believe that our prisons hold only those who deserve to be there.
Governor David Paterson’s recent decision to shut down the state’s unused execution chamber is a welcome step away from the state’s embarrassing reinstatement of the death penalty in 1995. It is also a tacit acknowledgement that the Innocence Project has exposed horrific flaws in our judicial system. Who knows how many people have walked the long walk to the gallows, to the electric chair, to the gurney, for a capital crime they did not commit?
The governor opposes the death penalty, and, like former Governors Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo, he has made a point of applying his sense of morality to questions of public policy. During the 1970s and ’80s, Mr. Carey and Mr. Cuomo annually vetoed death penalty legislation because they, like Mr. Paterson, were morally opposed to state-sponsored executions. Governor George Pataki had no such qualms, and was quick to sign the death penalty in the first year of his long, unremarkable tenure. In 2004, the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, ruled that the statute is unconstitutional. Mr. Paterson, taking his cue from the court, is dismantling the death penalty’s infrastructure.
According to a report in the New York Post, officials in the State Department of Correctional Services have removed the equipment necessary to administer lethal injections at the Green Haven Correctional Facility in Dutchess County. These days, the death chamber’s only visitors are the staff who clean the facility.
Many death penalty supporters are irate, charging that the governor is acting unilaterally. He is, and good for him. The death penalty as it is currently applied is a blot on the state’s progressive reputation, and a national disgrace. Anything Mr. Paterson does to make it harder to execute a prisoner in New York under the current conditions is welcome.
There is no question that many crimes cry out for the roughest sort of justice. Every state’s prison system houses felons who have committed heinous crimes, felons who have been properly convicted for offenses that have broken hearts and ruined the lives of innocent people.
But when we now know that people are wrongly convicted on a regular basis, and that the Innocence Project has overturned the convictions of prisoners who have spent decades in jail for crimes they did not commit, the state’s continuing to play the role of executioner is unconscionable.
The governor’s action speaks to his sense of justice and moral clarity—attributes always welcome in New York politics.