Last week the New York Court of Appeals handed down its decision in People v Taylor, 2007 NY Slip Op 07911.
This Buffalo News article sums up the case quite nicely:
The 4-3 decision is significant because the case involving John Taylor is the last death penalty case in New York's court system and it will now take an act of the State Legislature to restore capital punishment … unlikely given opposition in the Democratic-led Assembly.
The case was unusual. The court three years ago ruled that the sentencing provisions of the state's 1995 death penalty law were unconstitutional because they could sway a jury to choose a death sentence. The judge in the Taylor case then changed how the jury was instructed to address the Court of Appeals' concerns in that earlier death case.
But a majority of the Court of Appeals this morning said that the "death penalty sentencing statute is unconstitutional on its face and it is not within our power to save the statute."
The specific jury instruction at issue was as follows:
Now, any decision by you to impose a sentence, whether of death or of life imprisonment without parole, would have to be unanimous. In other words, each juror would have to agree to it. I am required to tell you that the law provides that in the event the jury fails to reach unanimous agreement with respect to the sentence, then I must sentence the defendant myself. And the law provides that if I sentence the defendant, I must sentence him to life imprisonment, but I must also fix a point at which the defendant will become eligible for parole. Under the law I must fix that point between twenty and twenty-five years for each count. In other words, on each count I would sentence the defendant to life imprisonment and order that he not become eligible for parole until he has served the minimum term that I fix, a term of between twenty and twenty-five years for each count. I think it is fair to tell you, however, that the six [count]s of first degree murder, and the two counts of first degree attempted murder on which you have convicted the defendant, are precisely the type of crimes that almost always induce a judge to give the maximum sentence permissible. In this case I would have the authority to sentence the defendant, not only to the maximum on each count, but also to make those sentences run consecutively. So, the maximum sentence I could give and would almost certainly impose in this case, would be a sentence of 175 years to life, which means that the defendant would become eligible for parole, but only after he had served 175 years in jail.
In the decision, the Court explained the rationale behind its holding:
LaValle made perfectly clear that the death penalty sentencing statute crafted by the Legislature was unconstitutional. That judgment stemmed from LaValle's core holdings that our Due Process Clause requires an anticipatory deadlock instruction be given and that the existing provision was unconstitutionally coercive (see id. 3 NY3d at 120, 130). Since we could not craft a new instruction, we were constrained to say: "under the present statute, the death penalty may not be imposed" (id., 3 NY3d at 131). Defendant, here, was thus sentenced to death under a facially unconstitutional statute.