[SUMMARY] | [ISSUE & DISPOSITION] | [AUTHORITIES CITED] | [COMMENTARY]
Under the New York State Constitution, bench trials are not permitted in death penalty cases and under the state's capital punishment statute, the death penalty may not be entered upon a guilty plea. See, NY const, art. I, § 2; CPL 220.10[e]; 220.30[b][vii]. Taken together, New York State law thus mandates two separate levels of penalty for the same offense, with only those who assert their innocence being eligible for the death penalty.
Trial courts in two first degree murder cases held these plea provisions to be facially unconstitutional under United States v. Jackson, 390 U.S. 570 (1968). See People v. Hale, 173 Misc. 2d 140; People v. Mateo, 175 Misc. 2d 192. Subsequently, in the separate declaratory judgment actions, the Appellate Divisions of the Second and Fourth Departments declared the plea provisions constitutional. Hynes v. Tomei, 237 A.D.2d 52; Relin v. Connell, __ AD2d __, 674 NYS2d 192.
In Jackson, relied upon by both trial courts and the New York Court of Appeals, the United States Supreme Court invalidated the death penalty provision of the Federal Kidnapping Act, 18 USC § 1201[a]. The federal act allowed a defendant to be sentenced to death only after a jury trial. The Jackson decision explained that the provisions at issue needlessly encouraged defendants to enter guilty pleas and jury waivers to avoid death sentences which impermissibly burdened the defendant's Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.
In this case, respondents argued that the New York statute is distinguishable from the Federal Kidnapping Act in at least three ways: (1) the defendant does not have unilateral control over the plea process because he can only plead guilty to first degree murder with an agreed upon sentence with the permission of both the court and the People, see, CPL 220.10[e]; 220.30[b][vii]; (2) the challenged provisions simply codify permissible plea bargaining which was not at issue in the federal act and; (3) the New York statute requires a bifurcated trial whereas the Federal Kidnapping Act permitted a unitary trial.
The New York Court of Appeals concluded that respondents' attempts to distinguish this statute from the federal act at issue in Jackson fail and thus held the challenged provisions of the New York statute to be unconstitutional. However, because the constitutional provisions were severable, it declined to invalidate the entire statute.
Whether the New York capital punishment statute violates Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights by imposing death only on those who proclaim their innocence and are, subsequently, granted a jury trial.
Yes. Defendants should not have to make a choice between death and the exercise of their constitutional rights. The provisions endangering a defendant's constitutional rights should be excised and the resulting statute may remain standing.
Thirty years ago, the United States Supreme Court invalidated the death penalty provision of the Federal Kidnapping Act, 18 USC § 1201[a], which allowed a defendant to be sentenced to death only after a jury trial. Defendants who were tried by the court or pled guilty could not get death. The Jackson court reasoned, "For the evil in the federal statute is not that it necessarily coerces guilty pleas and jury waivers but simply that it needlessly encourages them." United States v. Jackson, 390 U.S. 570, 583 (1968). In Ruiz & Denton v. State, 275 Ark. 410, 630 S.W.2d 44 (1982), the court noted that the Jackson decision has been eroded. For instance, in Corbitt v. New Jersey, 439 U.S. 212 (1978), the Supreme Court held that a State may encourage a guilty plea by offering substantial benefits in return for the plea. However, as Chief Judge Kaye explained, the Supreme Court has never overruled Jackson.
New York reinstated the death penalty in 1995 [NY CLS Penal § 60.06 (1998)]. For this reason, Tomei is a case of first impression. The court, therefore, cites analogous statutes in other states, and the Federal Kidnapping Act, to illustrate the unconstitutionality of the stricken portions of the New York Criminal Procedure Law. Prior to the state's restriction of the death penalty to (1) murder of a police officer acting in the course of his duties, and (2) murder by a prisoner serving a life term (former Penal Law § 1045; see Revised Penal Law § 125.30) in 1965, all forms of First Degree Murder carried the possibility of the death penalty. Therefore, the judge and prosecutor had to acquiesce to any plea bargaining agreement or guilty plea. Once the scope of crimes subject to the death penalty was so narrowed, and the possibility of capital punishment became the exception rather than the rule, judicial and prosecutorial consent became, as a practical matter, less important, as only the rare defendant would fall within the narrow range of circumstances necessary for the death penalty. However, as Chief Judge Kaye pointed out, the state is now bound by Jackson, 390 US 570 (1968), and the prior state of the law is immaterial.
The Court of Appeals invalidated the challenged provisions of the New York statute, CPL 220.10(5)(e) and 220.30(3)(b)(vii). Under the ruling, statewide, defendants may not plead guilty to first degree murder while a notice of intent to seek the death penalty is still pending. The Court admits that the result will reduce the flexibility of both prosecutors and defendants who wish to plea bargain in capital cases. Capital defendants will have fewer opportunities to avoid the possibility of the death penalty.
Unless the United State Supreme Court revisits its interpretation of federal constitutional provisions, state courts will continue to be bound under the federal Constitution to follow Jackson.
After Tomei, will capital defendants have fewer opportunities to avoid the possibility of the death penalty? Recent lower court decisions, relying on Tomei, suggests that this question remains unresolved. In People v. Van Dyne, 1999 N.Y. Slip Op. (N.Y. Cty. Ct. Jan. 20, 1999), the trial court allowed a capital defendant to terminate his case by admitting guilt with respect to the charge of murder in the first degree, waiving his right to appeal, and receiving a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The guilty plea was offered immediately following the District Attorney's application to withdraw his letter of intent to seek the death penalty. The court indicated "that the plea may be accepted based upon the defendant's knowing, intelligent and voluntary waiver of rights" and that the acceptance of the plea was consistent with the Tomei opinion. In effect, this decision "approved a procedure that allowed the plea despite the New York Court of Appeals's ruling in Tomei." See Life Sentence Issued in Rochester Case, 221 N.Y. L.J. 23 at col. 4 (Feb. 4, 1999).
In a Dutchess County case decided on February 17, 1999, the trial court denied a capital defendant's motion to enter a guilty plea in an attempt to avoid the death penalty. See 221 N.Y.L.J. 38 at col. 5 (Feb. 17, 1999). In that case, the District Attorney had not offered to withdraw his letter of intent to seek death. Rather, the day following the Tomei decision, the capital defendant had gone to court to change his not guilty plea to guilty in an attempt to avoid the risk of receiving the death penalty following a murder trial. The court indicated that "the decision as to whether to offer defendant such a plea bargain rests with the District Attorney. Unless and until he does so, this matter must proceed in its normal course of trial." The Dutchess County court specified that after Tomei, a capital defendant in New York can only enter a guilty plea, thereby avoiding the risk of the death penalty, in two circumstances: 1) if the District Attorney's 120 day time period of CPL section 250.40 has expired, or if the District Attorney announces his or her intention not to seek the death penalty within that period; or 2) if the District Attorney withdraws a his or her previously filed notice of intent to seek the death penalty pursuant to CPL section 250.40(4), because such notice cannot be refiled.
The Dutchess County decision may have been made in response to the concern of some, particularly prosecutors, that the Tomei decision will result in a rush to the courthouse by capital defendants seeking to enter guilty pleas before district attorneys get a chance to file letters of intent to seek death. See 221 N.Y. L.J. 18 at col. 1 (Jan. 28, 1999) ("In urging the [Court of Appeals] to block the [Tomei] ruling . . . while leave is sought to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, State District Attorney Association President William J. Fitzpatrick argued the ruling is creating 'a race to the courthouse.' Since the Court's decision both voided the requirement that the prosecution agree to guilty pleas and ruled out most plea bargaining after the death penalty is sought, Mr. Fitzpatrick explained, capital defendants now can attempt to file pleas, eliminating the possibility of death sentences, before prosecutors file their death notices."). Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes indicated that Tomei "is regrettable because it limits the discretion of the prosecutor to negotiate plea agreements with capital defendants . . ." and declared that he would seek leave to appeal the decision to the United States Supreme Court. Gary Spencer, N.Y.'s Death Penalty Plea Provision Is Struck, http://www.lawnewsnetwork.com/stories/dec/e122398b.html (visited Mar. 3 1999).
The Tomei decision relied extensively on the Unites States Supreme Court decision in Jackson. The Court has not revisited Jackson and its progeny for 20 years. One commentator reported that "the Governor called for a new review of the Jackson decision[, stating] 'While we consider legislation to address the Court's concerns, I would also urge the parties involved to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court to challenge the 1968 case that the Court of Appeals relied on in making its ruling.'" Gary Spencer, N.Y.'s Death Penalty Plea Provision Is Struck, http://www.lawnewsnetwork.com/stories/dec/e122398b.html (visited Mar. 3 1999). It remains unclear whether the Supreme Court will revisit the rule it articulated in Jackson given the increased significance of plea bargaining and the substantial changes in the administration of capital punishment that have occurred over the last twenty years.
In Shumpert v. South Carolina, 409 S.E.2d 771 (S.C. 1991), the Supreme Court of South Carolina held unconstitutional the Implied Consent Statute, S.C. Code Ann. § 56-5-2950 (1991), which imposed a penalty on persons who exercise their right to a jury trial that is not imposed on persons who plead guilty or nolo contendere, or forfeit bond, within thirty days. The Shumpert court severed the sentencing provision and upheld the state statute.
In Baker v. Arkansas, 884 S.W.2d 603 (Ark. 1994), the Supreme Court of Arkansas rejected the argument that failure to provide expunction relief for defendants exercising their rights to jury trial violates an individual's Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment constitutional rights. The Baker court cites Corbitt v. New Jersey, 439 U.S. 212 (1978), to support its claim that not every burden on the exercise of a constitutional right is invalid and that there is no per se rule against encouraging guilty pleas.
In Massachusetts v. Colon-Cruz, 470 N.E.2d 116 (Mass. 1984), the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts held that if a judge may not penalize a defendant for asserting his right to trial or his right not to plead guilty by imposing a harsher sentence than he otherwise would have, the Legislature may not authorize such penalization by legislation. The court suggests that this conclusion is supported by analogy to United States v. Jackson, 390 U.S. 570 (1968).