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Although the New York Court of Appeals on Tuesday spared the life of Darrel K. Harris, supporters of the death penalty found reason to be pleased with the court’s logic. “It is a great decision,” said state Sen. Dale M. Volker, an Erie County, N.Y., Republican and the prime legislative champion of capital punishment. “This case represents the first clear and unequivocal holding by the Court of Appeals that our statute is constitutional.” Like many death penalty experts and lawyers who had been watching the People v. Harris case, Volker said he had anticipated the court’s decision to dismiss the sentence based on Hynes v. Tomei, which invalidated the plea bargaining provisions of the death penalty statute. But, Volker said, he was surprised that the court was unanimous on the statutory issues. “My surprise is only one judge dissented,” he said. “I would have expected some sort of complaining.” Peter Pope, deputy attorney general in charge of the criminal division at the New York state attorney general’s office, said, “the court did nothing to undermine the statute in any way.” Pope argued in support of the statute’s constitutionality when the court heard the Harris case in May. John C. Tunney, president of the New York State District Attorneys Association, said that he, too, was pleased with the language of the majority opinion. “It bodes well for the statutory scheme in general,” Tunney said. He also stressed the importance of the court’s ruling that New York’s standard for excluding a juror for cause in a death penalty case is not greater than the federal standard. “Effectively, it is the same standard,” he said. Sean Byrne, executive director of the New York Prosecutors Training Institute, said it was “difficult to imagine a better outcome.” He described the ruling on Hynes as “inevitable.” Some death penalty opponents and defense attorneys reacted to the ruling with caution and muted optimism, while others openly expressed dismay. One appellate defense attorney, who asked not to be identified, said the court’s ruling was “very disillusioning” and “disheartening.” The attorney said the court had failed to use its “interest of justice” powers, which are only available to the Court of Appeals in capital punishment cases, to reach out and decide any of the substantive constitutional issues regarding the death statute. “It is a mixed blessing,” said Jonathan E. Gradess, executive director of the New York State Defenders Association, who added that he had been hoping for a broader decision. “We are obviously glad nobody is going to die. But there is a tone in the majority opinion that, if it continues, would be kind of foreboding.” Norman L. Greene of Schoeman, Updike & Kaufman, who is the chair of the Committee on Capital Punishment at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, said that from a lawyer’s standpoint, “it’s a good result for a client.” But, Greene said, “To those who are in the overall movement to abolish the death penalty or seek a moratorium, this decision is neutral. I don’t think [the court] has foreclosed or encouraged any type of particular argument.” The city bar had challenged the overall constitutionality of the death penalty in an amicus brief in Harris. Albany Law School Professor Vincent M. Bonventre, a longtime court analyst, said there was no reason for the court to venture beyond the issues it needed to address to resolve this appeal. However, he questioned why the panel ruled solely on federal constitutional grounds. “We are dealing with the New York death penalty and the New York statute,” Bonventre said. “If the New York high court thinks it is unfair to subject an individual to the death penalty solely because he exercises his constitutional rights, why don’t they just say so as a matter of New York law? How bold would it be to say, ‘In New York, we won’t tolerate that kind of inequity.’” Additionally, Bonventre said the chasm between the majority and the dissent by Judge George Bundy Smith may be far broader than it appears at first glance. “The disagreement between the majority and dissent really covers every issue,” he said. “Smith is saying that in a death penalty case there has to be heightened scrutiny for everything and he and the majority seem to disagree on that.” David Kaczynski, head of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty and brother of “Unabomber” Theodore Kaczynski, found room for hope in both opinions. “There is something encouraging about the ruling,” Kaczynski said, because it acknowledges that “death is different.” Judge Smith stressed that point in his dissent, and Kaczynski said the majority’s assertion that “a capital case requires the most meticulous and thoughtful attention” because mistakes “discovered years later may not be correctable” echoed a recent ruling by U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff, of the Southern District of New York, who found the federal death penalty to be unconstitutional. Kaczynski said that he appreciates the court’s close examination of even the finest issues regarding the death penalty, but added, “At the same time, I think we have to acknowledge that what you miss with the microscope is the big picture.” For now, the big picture favors death penalty supporters and prosecutors, who face few obstacles in bringing such cases. Tuesday, a spokesman for Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said the ruling does not affect the office’s intention to seek the death penalty for John Taylor, who is accused of murdering five Wendy’s employees in a robbery.

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