In 45 minutes of intense and sometimes searing inquiry, the Court of Appeals yesterday revisited New York’s death penalty statute in the context of when and how a plea to a capital offense can be facilitated. Its decision, expected within eight weeks, will greatly affect how death penalty prosecutions are carried out in New York.

The issue for the Court to decide is whether first-degree murder defendants can evade execution by pleading to the indictment before a prosecutor files a notice that it intends to seek the death penalty. If the Court allows the pre-emptory pleas, it will have established an environment in which prosecutors and defense attorneys are in what Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye described as an “unseemly race to the courthouse” to protect their respective interests.

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