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A constitutional challenge to the sentencing provisions of New York’s death penalty statute was dismissed this week by a federal appeals court, most likely signifying a final defeat for a novel legal argument. In a brief opinion, a unanimous panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that it was not irrational to have juries sentence first-degree murder defendants facing the death penalty, while judges sentence first-degree murder defendants not facing death. Under New York’s capital punishment statute, re-enacted in 1995, a jury in a capital trial can impose either a death sentence or life without parole. The sentence is delivered not during the guilt phase of the trial, but after a separate proceeding on the sentence alone. If the jury cannot agree on a sentence, the trial judge can impose a parole-eligible sentence of 25 years to life. However, in first-degree murder cases where prosecutors decline to seek the death penalty, judges alone sentence defendants to life without parole or a shorter term. In Holland v. Donnelly, 02-2358, Darryl Holland argued that his sentence of life without parole, which was imposed by a judge, violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution because it arbitrarily treated death penalty defendants differently from non-death penalty defendants like him. Holland was convicted of first- and second-degree murder in 1997 after he robbed, strangled and stabbed to death an acquaintance who was driving him home. Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro declined to seek the death penalty. Westchester Supreme Court Justice Mark C. Dillon sentenced Holland to life without parole after a jury found him guilty. Holland challenged his sentence in federal court and, initially, Southern District Judge Gerard E. Lynch questioned whether New York’s sentencing scheme was flawed. But Lynch ultimately concluded in Holland v. Donnelly, 216 F. Supp. 2d 227, that the distinctions were rational when one considered the “different goals and problems pursued in death and non-death cases.” LOWER-COURT ANALYSIS This week the 2nd Circuit described Lynch’s opinion as “comprehensive” and “thoughtful,” and adopted his logic. In particular, the court embraced Lynch’s analysis of the objectives of the two sentencing options. In a capital case, Lynch wrote, asking a jury to decide unanimously between death or life without parole “serves the benevolent purpose of restricting the death penalty to cases where the jury believes that the ultimate sanction is absolutely necessary.” But in non-death cases, the judge wrote, the judge’s sentencing power keeps a prosecutor’s discretion in check: “In exchange for giving the prosecutor an unbridled option to exercise mercy, the state requires that the judge have an option of guaranteeing public safety by imposing an unparolable life term.” The New York Court of Appeals came to a similar conclusion in February when it upheld the sentencing scheme in People v. Hansen, 12. Writing for the unanimous Court, Judge Richard T. Wesley said that “a heightened standard of due process” is necessary for sentencing procedures in death cases to ensure that death is not imposed arbitrarily. But the judge said no such standard is necessary in non-death cases. Holland was represented by Salvatore A. Gaetani of the Legal Aid Society in Westchester. Assistant District Attorneys Robin Lamont and Joseph M. Latino in Westchester appeared for the prosecution.

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