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In a capital murder appeal decided over a century ago, the judges of New York’s highest court engaged in a protracted gripe over the hassle of dealing with the inevitable mountain of paperwork. “The duty imposed upon us is that of reading the whole evidence in the case of every conviction of murder in the first-degree,” Judge Rufus W. Peckham Jr. complained indignantly in one of the last New York Court of Appeals decisions he would write before moving on to the U.S. Supreme Court. “Taking all this mass of evidence, and printing it by question and answer, with its innumerable and everlasting repetitions of the same thing said in the same way, does no good to anyone, and at the same time makes the reading a burden which ought not to be imposed upon the court.” With all due respect, Your Honor, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. A half century after Judge Peckham’s rhetorical outburst in People v. Shea, 147 NY 78 (1895), the court was not only dealing directly with repetitious capital defenses, but capital defendants as well. When the original sentence lapsed while the appeal was pending, convicts in the 1940s and 1950s would actually be brought shackled to ornate Court of Appeals Hall, where they would stand beside the Mexican onyx fireplace and witness their condemnation. The Chief Judge himself would impose the sentence of death in the Sing Sing electric chair while the associates observed. And they did not like it one bit, recalled retired Court Crier Bernard J. “Barney” Tansey, 84, of suburban Albany, N.Y. “The judges,” recalled Tansey, “hated it.” Tansey said Chief Judge John T. Loughran routinely asked the about-to-be-condemned if he had anything to say. Generally, the killer declined the opportunity to speak and the sentence was quickly and uncomfortably dispatched by the chief. Once, however, a wife killer went on for more than an hour, and judges who think nothing of interrupting the most distinguished and learned attorneys in New York were loath to cut into the murderer’s monologue, Tansey said. “We couldn’t shut him up,” Tansey reminisced. “He went on and on and on, not that it did him any good.” If there was anything the judges disliked more than staring down killers, it was personally signing the death warrant, Tansey said. The former crier said judges tried mightily to avoid that chore, which meant he had to chase them around the courthouse to secure a signature. “They always had some excuse, but they knew eventually they had to do it,” Tansey said. “They’d say, ‘I’m kind of busy, Barney, can you come back later?’ I knew what they were doing. They didn’t want to sign it… . But it had to be done before they could put [the convict] in the electric chair.” Tansey said Chief Judge Loughran once confided that he said a special prayer every time he signed a death warrant. HEAVY BURDEN Today, dealing with death has become something of a cottage industry at the Court of Appeals. The first capital case under the 1995 statute will be argued May 6, followed by the appeals of five more death row inmates. Long before People v. Harris was calendared it was clear that the case was both literally and figuratively a heavy weight on the court. Part of the additional burden stems from the fact that in a death case, unlike other cases, the Court of Appeals has fact-finding jurisdiction. Capital appeals go directly and automatically to the court, bypassing the Appellate Division. Consequently, every death case comes to Eagle Street, and every death case requires a factual examination by the court in addition to legal analysis. The Harris record on appeal consumes 31 volumes and 20,822 pages. A defense brief spans 779 pages, which sparked a 1,181-page prosecution response, resulting in a 269-page defense reply. In addition, there is a brief from the attorney general, plus amicus briefs galore. As with all cases, the court required 15 copies of the record and briefs. All told, the Harris case — which court spokesman Gary Spencer said has the shortest record of the pending capital cases — occupies more than 70 linear feet of shelving at the Court of Appeals, not to mention some floor space in the basement and just about everywhere else where a spare corner could be found. The court, which usually grants a total of no more than 40 minutes per appeal, has set aside over four hours to hear Darrel K. Harris’ case. With a couple of breaks, the judges will spend the day hearing arguments in that single matter on May 6. In a typical argument day, the court will hear four cases in about three hours. In contrast, the Shea case that so upset Judge Peckham “embraced some 2,000 printed pages of evidence … exclusive of some 300 pages of examination of jurors… .” Dealing with first-degree murder, Judge Peckham observed, imposed “a very arduous duty upon this court.” That “arduous duty” has surely not diminished in the decades and generations that have passed since Shea died in the electric chair at Dannemora prison on Feb. 11, 1896, proclaiming his innocence to the end. But the Harris court will have some extra help: all seven judges have retained an extra law clerk to cope with the additional workload, costing New York taxpayers roughly $533,000 annually in additional salaries and benefits.

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