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A Governor Who Rejected Death Penalty's Passions

New York may soon become the 38th state to allow capital punishment - largely because Gov. George Pataki, a death-penalty advocate, defeated former Gov. Mario Cuomo last fall. Governor Cuomo stuck by his anti-death-penalty stand, even though it contributed to his defeat.

He summarized his position in a March 20, 1989, speech, published in his book ``More than Words'' (St. Martin's, 1993). In an excerpt below, he notes the disturbing growth of revenge as an acceptable justification for the legalized taking of human life.

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I HAVE spoken my own opposition to the death penalty for more than 30 years. For all that time I have studied it, I have watched it, I have debated it, hundreds of times. I have heard all the arguments, analyzed all the evidence I could .... And always before, I have concluded that the death penalty is wrong. That it lowers us all, that it is a surrender to the worst that is in us, that it uses a power - the official power of execution - which has never elevated a society, never brought back a life, never inspired anything but hate....

Our passions are inflamed by each new terrible headline, each new report of atrocity. We know the people have a right to demand a civilized level of law and peace. They have a right to expect it. And when it appears to them that crime is rampant, and the criminal seems immune from apprehension and adequate punishment, and that nothing else is working, then no one should be surprised if the people demand the ultimate penalty. It has happened before. It will no doubt happen again....

Like too many other citizens of this state, I know what it is to be violated - and even to have one's closest family violated, in the most despicable ways. I tremble at the thought of how I might react to someone who took the life of my son. Anger, surely ... terrible anger. I would not be good enough to suppress it. Would I demand revenge? ... I know that despite all my beliefs, I might be driven by my impulses....

But I know something else.

I know this society should strive for something better than what we are in our worst moments.

When police officers are killed, violence escalates, and lawlessness seems to flourish with impunity, it isn't easy for people to hold back their anger, to stop and think, to allow reason to operate.

But that, it seems to me, is the only rational course for a people ... seeking to achieve greater measures of humanity and dignity for our civilization....

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For years and years, the arguments have raged over whether the death penalty is a deterrent. That used to be, frankly, the only argument when I first began debating it. But the truth is now that because the proponents have never been able to make the case of deterrence convincingly, they have moved to a different argument. It is phrased in many ways, but in the end it all comes down to the same impulse.

It was heard in the debates in recent weeks on the floor of the Senate and Assembly, which I listened to and read with great care. Things like this: ``Whatever the studies show, the people of my area believe that the taking of a life justifies the forfeiting of life.'' Or: ``Our people have the right to insist on a penalty that matches the horror of the crime.'' Or even this: ``An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.'' ...

Where would it end? ``You kill my son, I kill yours,'' ``You rape my daughter, I rape yours.'' ``You mutilate my body, I mutilate yours.''

And we will pursue this course, despite the lack of reason to believe it will protect us - even if it is clear, almost with certainty, that occasionally the victim of our official barbarism will be innocent.... At least 23 people are believed to have been wrongfully executed in the United States since the turn of this century. Twenty-three innocent people officially killed....

Just recently, in an article in the New York Times Magazine, a young man on Death Row named Heath Wilkins was asked whether people underestimated the deterrent power of life without parole. ``Absolutely,'' Wilkins responded. ``Death isn't a scary thing to someone who's hurting inside so bad that they're hurting other people. People like that are looking for death as a way out.''

FOR the six years I have offered it to the legislature, I have heard no substantial arguments in opposition to the proposal for life imprisonment without parole. I've heard none....

[It is a punishment] so menacing to a potential killer, it could actually deter. One that does not require us to be infallible in order to avoid taking innocent life.

One that does not require us to stoop to the level of the killers.

One that is even - for those who insist on measuring this question in dollars - millions of dollars less expensive than the death penalty, millions ... true life imprisonment, with no possibility of parole ... none, under any circumstances.

If you committed a murder at 20 and you live to be 81, you'll live 61 years behind bars. You'll go in alive and come out only when you die. Now that's a tough penalty.

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