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With a topic as emotionally charged as capital punishment, objective analysis often yields to hyperbole. But a group of scholars centered at the State University at Albany is attempting to take a purely rational, strictly academic look at one of the most vexing of all criminal justice debates. The Capital Punishment Research Initiative (CPRI) was established as a national center to coordinate research on the death penalty. CPRI has already established the National Death Penalty Archives at Albany ( http://library.albany.edu/speccoll/), and it has hopes of becoming a nationwide repository of historical records. Its files are open to policy makers, courts, attorneys and other researchers. “We are a nonideological group,” said one of the founders, James R. Acker, interim dean and professor of law at the School of Criminal Justice. “We don’t care if people are for the death penalty or against it. What we care about doing is down-the-middle objective research.” CPRI is run by a consortium of researchers, including Professor Acker, Charles S. Lanier of SUNY Albany and William Bowers of Northeastern University. Its roots date to 1991, when Acker, an attorney, was an associate dean in the Criminal Justice School and Lanier was a new student who had taken an interest in capital punishment — one of Acker’s specialties. They began collaborating on death penalty research and eventually decided to create a network of scholars with similar interests. That network became the Capital Punishment Research Initiative. Acker has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology from Indiana University, a law degree from Duke and a Ph.D. in criminal justice from Albany. Earlier in his career, he practiced law in North Carolina, primarily in criminal defense, and developed a legal interest in the death penalty. “I am trained in the law, and Charlie is more empirically oriented,” Acker said. “Since the death penalty is, from an academic standpoint, part legal principle and part practical application, the marriage was a good one.” Lanier, who is now nearly finished with his doctoral work in criminal justice, and Acker teamed up on a number of projects. They also edited, along with Robert M. Bohm, “America’s Experiment with Capital Punishment: Reflections on the Past, Present and Future of the Ultimate Penal Sanction” (Carolina Academic Press, 1998). COMPARATIVE STUDIES One CPRI study — on the availability of spiritual advisers in the death chamber — resulted from a desperate plea from a death row prisoner in California. California segregates the condemned from their advisers a couple of hours before the execution, and that isolation enabled defense counsel to get a stay. The defense contacted Jonathan Gradess, head of the New York State Defenders Association in Albany, who contacted Acker and Lanier. A study showed that states have different policies. Some do not allow spiritual advisers in the death room, others like Texas do. Many, including New York, have not addressed the issue. In the California case, the application was denied when a court said legitimate security interests justified the separation of the condemned and his spiritual counsel. The issue remains ripe in New York. Another project sought to examine the claims of capital punishment foes that a number of innocent defendants had been put to death — a total of 23, including eight from New York. In an effort to confirm or refute, CPRI examined all available records of the eight New York cases and concluded, as did the original researchers, that there was reasonable doubt as to the guilt of the executed. A third study attempted to gauge the impact of death-qualified juries. The question was whether death-qualifying a jury inherently results in a more prosecution-prone panel. “In basic terms, it kicks off all the bleeding-heart liberal types … who are going to share views on what due process means and on the presumption of innocence,” Acker said. “When you remove this segment of the community, it creates juries that are more conviction prone, more apt to convict based on the evidence they hear, and the jury is skewed in that it no longer represents a cross-section of the community. People with certain views are excluded, often including women and African Americans.” A randomly selected sample jury from Albany County suggested that death qualification does indeed skew the jury and lead to a more conviction-oriented panel, Professor Acker said. New York’s death penalty statute is unique in that after the guilt trial, the judge is required to inquire of jurors as to whether there is any reason they cannot render a fair and impartial verdict on sentencing. “So, there is a separate, mini voir dire that creates a perfect opportunity to remove those people whose views on the death penalty are particularly strong,” Acker said. Also unique to New York’s law, Acker said, is a capital defense system that is second to none, and a peculiar charging requirement. He said the formation of the Capital Defender Office “is a tremendously progressive and important part of the death penalty bill. I think New York is the model for states serious about finding well-funded, adequately trained counsel. Very few states have anything like this. Most rely on public defenders. New York was very much in the forefront and since then there have been a few others states — Colorado, Maryland — that have moved to this system.” Studies show a 68 percent reversal rate nationwide in death sentences, usually a result of trial error or prosecutorial misconduct. “If you give the people the representation they ought to have at the outset, you spare everybody needless convictions and needless reversals,” Acker said. “New York was way ahead of the curve in investing resources up front for good trial counsel. It saves so many problems down the road, whatever side you are on.” Another extraordinary provision in the New York statute is one that requires a jury instruction advising that the panel’s options include death or life without parole — but then notes that if the jury fails to come to unanimous agreement, the judge will impose a sentence of 20 to 25 years to life. “Why this is so unusual — and I am biting my tongue so I don’t say ‘bizarre,’ ‘irrational,’ ‘arbitrary’ — is it translates into: If you have an 11-1 split, the judge will impose a sentence that nobody wants, which is life with parole eligibility after 20 or 25 years,” Acker said. “If I am the lone holdout for life without parole, it may cause me to cave in for death.” Interestingly, that provision is not at issue in the appeal of Darrell Harris, whose death sentence will present the Court of Appeals with its first opportunity to examine the 1995 capital punishment statute. The reason is that the trial judge refused to give the mandatory charge. Regardless, Acker said an analysis of New York jurisprudence reveals ample territory for an all-out attack on the death penalty. He suggested that issues such as geographic and racial disparity may bother the Court of Appeals. He also observed that none of the most recent Court of Appeals’ rulings on prior death penalty statutes addressed the issue under the New York State Constitution � leaving an “unexplored frontier” for counsel in the Harris case. The Court of Appeals will hear the Darrell Harris appeal on May 6, and it has reserved an entire afternoon for oral arguments. GROUP’S GOALS Meanwhile, the CPRI will pursue its independent goals, Lanier said. Those goals include: � Expansion of the capital punishment archives in the M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives in the university’s New Science Library. � Indexing of the Halperin Papers. Professor Rick Halperin of Southern Methodist University has donated original and photocopied newspaper articles published in periodicals throughout the nation and describing death penalty cases and capital punishment debates. Also included are flyers and other materials publicizing speeches and rallies pertaining to the death penalty. Two graduate students are indexing the materials. � Completing construction of the “clemency collection,” a collection of all available clemency petitions. � Establishment of an abolitionist oral history project. CPRI is planning to assemble a collection of video and audio tapes to document the motivations and strategies of those who have worked over the years to abolish capital punishment.

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