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When Thomas J. Spota III campaigned to become the next Suffolk County, N.Y., district attorney, he hardly mentioned the death penalty. Yet the man he was hoping to unseat, and did, James M. Catterson, was a staunch proponent of capital punishment and successfully prosecuted three of the six defendants on death row. Asked recently about his position, Spota was firm: He too favors capital punishment. Spota took office in January without any death-eligible cases on the docket, and none have appeared since then, but he said he is prepared if one does. He has pulled together a group of senior prosecutors who will help him investigate all aspects of a case and recommend an outcome. He said he would listen to the victim’s family, would demand conclusive evidence beyond eyewitness testimony, including DNA, and would particularly rely on John Collins, the homicide bureau chief, and John Buonora, his chief assistant, for recommendations. “Between the three of us, there are over 35 years of experience as homicide prosecutors,” he said. By contrast, Catterson was famously independent. Stressing that by statute, the decision is left to the discretion of the district attorney, Catterson said in an interview last month that he sought exhaustive information from prosecutors and police, and weighed it carefully, but he dismissed the notion that he had taken any recommendations. “This is the most difficult decision a DA has to make, but no one ever made it but me,” he said. Some district attorneys, like Westchester, N.Y., District Attorney Jeanine Pirro, say they have committees of advisors who help them reach a conclusion on whether to seek the death penalty. “In any murder one case, there are probably facts and circumstances that anyone could point to say the death penalty would be warranted,” said Pirro, a strong death penalty proponent who issued her first death notice last May. “But whether [or not] a number of people are involved, it is up to the DA to make the call, and the jury decides whether the defendant should die, not the DA.” She said her committee consists of the most senior and most experienced members of her staff, among them the chiefs of the trial bureau, the domestic violence, appeals, motion and grand jury divisions, and her chief assistant — “a room full of individuals who are well prepared and well briefed.” Nassau, N.Y., District Attorney Dennis Dillon, who has never sought the death penalty, said he relies on his chief assistant and the chief of the major offenses bureau, but has given them “certain guidelines” on which to make a recommendation. Foremost among them, he said, is that the death penalty should be invoked only when life in prison is not sufficient to protect the public. And Queens, N.Y., District Attorney Richard A. Brown wrote in the Queens Bar Bulletin that during the 120-day period the statute provides for making a decision, he follows the same process a jury is meant to, by weighing mitigating and aggravating factors. Brown wrote that he does so along with “an advisory committee, made up of the most experienced assistants on my staff, whose task is to do a complete evaluation of every death-eligible case.” The committee’s meticulous probing “virtually eliminates any possibility that I will ever seek the death penalty against one who is innocent of the charges,” he wrote.

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