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New York Adopts Death-Penalty Law, But Critics Vow Tests

Backers hail new law as necessary to punish offenders as violent crime grows

MURDERERS in the Bronx. Terrorists blowing up buildings. A serial killer upstate.

As of yesterday, they will all face the prospect of the death penalty now that Republican Gov. George Pataki has signed into law capital punishment legislation. New York is now the thirty-eighth state with a death penalty on its books.

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The new governor had made his support of the death penalty part of his campaign last year. Former Gov. Mario Cuomo (D) had vetoed all prior death-penalty bills.

Opponents of the death penalty did not expect the New York law to have any impact on the debate in other states. The state senate in Iowa, for example, recently rejected a death penalty passed by the lower house.

Death-penalty legislation in Massachusetts is not likely to get passed either, says Leigh Dingerson, executive director of the Washington-based National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. However, she says the group is ``concerned and watching'' death penalty legislation under debate in Wisconsin.

Proponents of the new law hailed the legislation as a way to punish violent offenders. ``This bill is a direct response to the people of New York who are fed up with senseless, barbaric killings and with soft-on-crime attitudes,'' says Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno.

However, opponents of the death penalty say it would not do anything to bring down the violent crime rate.

``What the legislature has just bought into is an unwieldy, cumbersome, expensive process where lawyers will have to use everything possible to ensure their clients are not executed,'' says Ted Shaw, associate director-counsel, NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Mr. Shaw says his group will examine the new legislation to see if there are any possible constitutional challenges. ``We believe it is a fair bill and will pass the Constitutional muster and the Federal Constitution,'' says Sheldon Silver, the Democratic speaker of the Assembly, which passed the law early March 7.

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In addition, the Fund plans to look for cases it can pursue that might indicate race discrimination. A significant percentage of the individuals on death rows around the country are black.

Florida and Texas have led the nation in the number of death row inmates killed since the US Supreme Court allowed executions to begin again in 1976. According to Tufts University professor Hugo Bedau, there is no evidence that the death penalty is detering violent crime in either state.

To the public, he says, it looks like a quick fix - ``but it isn't.''

All studies show, he says, that it costs more to execute a convicted murderer than to imprison him for life. Ms. Dingerson estimates the average capital case costs $2 million to prosecute. ``It will tie up the courts, they won't be able to handle the civil and non-capital docket,'' she forecasts, adding, ``It has been a disaster in every state that has tried it.''

Violent crime in New York State has quadrupled between 1966 and 1993. However, murder appears to have peaked in 1990 and has declined in New York City for the last four years.

The New York State legislation commits the state to help pay for both the prosecution and defense of capital offenses. The additional expense comes at a time when the state is struggling to balance its budget. It is not clear yet where the governor will get the additional money for the cases.

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