Capital punishment in New York

While laws regarding the imposition of capital punishment in the state of New York are still on the books, it is no longer enforced as it has been declared unconstitutional in the state and this ruling has not been overturned. The last execution took place in 1963, when Eddie Lee Mays was electrocuted at Sing Sing Prison. The state was the first to adopt the electric chair as a method of execution, which replaced hanging.

Following the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling declaring existing capital punishment statutes unconstitutional in Furman v. Georgia (1972) and its subsequent ruling on specific conditions states had to meet for revised statutes in Gregg v. Georgia (1976), New York was without a death penalty until 1995, when Governor George Pataki signed a new statute into law, which provided for execution by lethal injection.

In June 2004, the state's highest court ruled in People v. LaValle that the state's death penalty statute violated the state constitution,[1] and New York has had an effective moratorium on capital punishment since then. Subsequent legislative attempts at fixing or replacing the statute have failed,[2] and in 2008 Governor David Paterson issued an executive order disestablishing New York's death row.[3] Legislative efforts to amend the statute have failed, and death sentences are no longer sought at the state level, though certain crimes that fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government are subject to the federal death penalty.[4][5][6]

Even though the current death penalty statute was ruled unconstitutional by the New York State Court of Appeals in 2004, the death penalty statute was never fully repealed from New York State law. On August 2, 2018, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he was advancing legislation to remove the death penalty statute from New York State law.[7]

Colonial period and statehoodEdit

During various periods from the 1600s onward, New York law prescribed the death penalty for crimes such as sodomy, adultery, counterfeiting, perjury, and attempted rape or murder by slaves.[8] In 1796, New York abolished the death penalty for crimes other than murder and treason, but arson was made a capital crime in 1808.[8]

Temporary abolitionEdit

In 1860, the New York Legislature passed a bill which effectively, though unintentionally, abolished capital punishment in the state, by repealing hanging as a method of execution without prescribing an alternative method. The bill was signed by Governor Edwin D. Morgan in April 1860. The New York Court of Appeals ruled the statute unconstitutional, in part, as an ex post facto law. Governor Morgan signed legislation to restore the death penalty in 1861, and again in 1862 to fully repeal the earlier statute.[9]

Introduction of the electric chairEdit

William Kemmler was the first individual to be executed by electric chair, on August 6, 1890.

In 1886, newly elected New York State governor David B. Hill set up a three-member "New York Commission" to determine a new, more humane system of execution to replace hanging. The commission included the human rights advocate and reformer Elbridge Thomas Gerry, New York lawyer and politician Matthew Hale, and Buffalo dentist and experimenter Alfred P. Southwick.[10] Southwick had been developing an idea since the early 1880s of using electric current as a means of capital punishment after hearing about how relatively painlessly and quickly a drunken man died due to grabbing the energized parts on a generator. Southwick had published this proposal first in 1882 and, being a dentist accustomed to performing procedures on subjects in chairs, used the form of a chair in his designs, which became known as the "electric chair".[11] The commission reviewed ancient and modern forms of execution including lethal injection but finally settled on electrocution in 1888. A bill making electrocution New York State's form of execution passed the legislature and was signed by Governor Hill on June 4, 1888, set to go into effect on January 1, 1889.

The first individual to be executed in the electric chair was William Kemmler, on August 6, 1890. Current was passed through Kemmler for 17 seconds and he was declared dead, but witnesses noticed he was still breathing, and the current was turned back on. From start to finish, the execution took eight minutes. During the execution, blood vessels under the skin ruptured and bled, and some witness reported that Kemmler's body set on fire.


From 1890 to 1963, 695 people were executed in New York. The first was William Kemmler on August 6, 1890, and the last was Eddie Lee Mays on August 15, 1963. Kemmler was the first person in the world known to be executed in an electric chair. Except for four individuals, all of the people executed during this period were convicted of murder. The four exceptions were Joseph Sacoda and Demetrius Gula, who were convicted of kidnapping and executed January 11, 1940, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of espionage and executed June 19, 1953.[12]

Famous casesEdit

In 1901, Leon Czolgosz was electrocuted for the assassination of U.S. President William McKinley.

Ruth Snyder was one of the very few women executed at Sing Sing. She was put to death in 1928 for the murder of her husband.

A lesser known case dates to January 1936, when serial killer Albert Fish was put to death for the cannibal murder of 10-year-old Grace Budd. At age 65, Fish was the oldest person ever executed at Sing Sing.

Other notable cases are those of seven members of Mafia hit squad Murder, Inc between 1941 and 1944, and "Lonely hearts killer" Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck in 1951, who are believed to have killed as many as 20 women.

The most famous execution in state history occurred in June, 1953, when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were put to death at Sing Sing for espionage against the United States.


In 1965, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, a liberal Republican who supported capital punishment, signed legislation which abolished the death penalty except for cases involving the murder of a police officer.[13]

Furman v. GeorgiaEdit

In the July 1972 decision in Furman v. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the existing death penalty procedures across the United States. The moratorium lasted until 1976, when the Court ruled in Gregg v. Georgia that states could resume capital punishment under reworked statutes.

Grasso extradition and executionEdit

On January 11, 1995, convicted killer Thomas J. Grasso, who had been sentenced to death by Oklahoma but was serving a sentence of 20 years to life in New York, was extradited from New York to Oklahoma to face execution.[14] Grasso was transported to Buffalo Niagara International Airport and flown to Oklahoma. He was executed on March 20, 1995.[15]

1995 reinstatementEdit

In 1995, fulfilling a campaign promise, newly elected Governor George Pataki, a Republican, signed legislation reinstating the death penalty in New York, establishing lethal injection as the method of execution.

Statute struck down in 2004Edit

On June 24, 2004, the New York Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, held 4–3 in People v. LaValle that the state's death penalty statute violated the New York Constitution.[1] Governor Pataki criticized the ruling and promised a quick legislative fix.

Between December 2004 and February 2005, public hearings were held in Manhattan and Albany. New York Law School Professor and death penalty advocate Robert Blecker advocated strongly in favor of reinstatement, while Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau strongly opposed reinstatement.

In 2007, the New York Court of Appeals heard arguments in People v. John Taylor, and, in rejecting the arguments of the Queens District Attorney, commuted the sentence to life without parole, leaving New York with an empty death row.

Political significance in Manhattan District Attorney electionsEdit

In the 2005 Democratic primary for Manhattan District Attorney, incumbent Robert Morgenthau's successful campaign produced television advertisements criticizing opponent Leslie Crocker Snyder, a prosecutor who had stated in her autobiography that in one case, she would have been willing to give a lethal injection to a defendant herself, saying Snyder was "Wrong on the Death Penalty, Wrong for Manhattan".[16] The New York Times endorsed Snyder but expressed concern about her support for the death penalty.[17] For the duration of Morgenthau's tenure as Manhattan District Attorney, he never once sought the death penalty in the period it was legal in New York.[18]

In the 2009 Democratic primary in which Morgenthau did not run, Snyder ran for District Attorney again, against Cyrus Vance, Jr. (who would win) and Richard Aborn. Both opponents strongly opposed the death penalty, and criticized Snyder for her previous comments. Snyder accused Vance and Aborn of taking her comments out of context, and stated that her position on the death penalty had changed due to learning about wrongful convictions. Aborn said he would oppose attempts to restore it, and would "lead the effort against any attempt to revive it".[19]

Legislative efforts to reinstate the death penaltyEdit

In 2005, supporters of the death penalty in the New York Legislature passed a bill restoring New York's death penalty in the Republican-controlled State Senate,[20][21] but the legislation was voted down by a legislative committee in the Democratic-controlled New York Assembly, and was not enacted into law.[2]

In 2008, the State Senate again passed legislation that would have established the death penalty for the murder of law enforcement officers,[22] but the Assembly did not act on the legislation.[citation needed]

Death row disestablishedEdit

In 2008, Governor David Paterson, a Democrat, issued an executive order requiring the removal of the state's execution equipment.[3]

Death penalty statute repeal effortEdit

On August 2, 2018, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he was advancing legislation to remove the death penalty statute from New York State law.[23]

See alsoEdit

Further readingEdit

  • Philip English Mackey. 1982. Hanging in the Balance: The Anti-Capital Punishment Movement in New York State, 1776–1861. (New York: Garland)


  1. ^ a b Glaberson, William (June 25, 2004). "4-3 Ruling Effectively Halts Death Penalty in New York". The New York Times. Retrieved December 31, 2009. New York State's highest court ruled yesterday that a central provision of the state's capital punishment law violated the State Constitution. Lawyers said the ruling would probably spare the lives of the four men now on death row and effectively suspend the death penalty in New York.
  2. ^ a b Powell, Michael (April 13, 2005). "In N.Y., Lawmakers Vote Not to Reinstate Capital Punishment". The Washington Post. Retrieved December 31, 2009. NEW YORK, April 12 -- New York's death penalty is no more. A legislative committee tossed out a bill Tuesday aimed at reinstating the state's death penalty, which a court had suspended last year. It was an extraordinary bit of drama, not least because a top Democrat who once strongly supported capital punishment led the fight to end it.
  3. ^ a b Scott, Brendan (July 24, 2008). "GOV PULLS SWITCH ON DEATH CELL". New York Post. Retrieved April 9, 2009.
  4. ^ Rob Gallagher (October 25, 2005). "New York Executions". Archived from the original on 2008-05-28. Retrieved 2009-04-09.
  5. ^ Scott, Brendan (July 24, 2008). "GOV PULLS SWITCH ON DEATH CELL". New York Post. Retrieved 2009-04-09.
  6. ^ Powell, Michael (April 13, 2005). "In N.Y., Lawmakers Vote Not to Reinstate Capital Punishment". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2008-04-11.
  7. ^ "Governor Cuomo to Advance Legislation to Remove Death Penalty from State Law in Solidarity with Pope Francis". Governor Andrew M. Cuomo. 2 August 2018.
  8. ^ a b Eisenstadt, Peter; Moss, Laura-Eve, eds. (2005). "Agriculture". The Encyclopedia of New York State. p. 261. ISBN 081560808X. LCCN 2005001032.
  9. ^ "WHEN NEW YORK HAD NO DEATH PENALTY; Punishment for Murder Under Law of 1860 Curiously Limited to a Year in Prison". The New York Times. January 21, 1912. Retrieved January 22, 2010.
  10. ^ David Marc. "Southwick, Alfred Porter", American National Biography Online - 2000
  11. ^ Christen, AG; Christen JA. (November 2000). "Alfred P. Southwick, MDS, DDS: dental practitioner, educator and originator of electrical executions". Journal of the History of Dentistry. 48 (3): 115–45. PMID 11806253.
  12. ^ Lumer, Michael; Tenney, Nancy (1995). "The Death Penalty in New York: An Historical Perspective". Journal of Law and Policy. 4 (1).
  13. ^ Craig Brandon, The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History, 1999
  14. ^ Sack, Kevin (January 12, 1995). "New York Transfers Killer to Oklahoma To Await Execution". The New York Times. Retrieved December 26, 2009.
  15. ^ Schwartzman, Paul; Finnegan, Michael (March 20, 1995). "GRASSO IS PUT TO DEATH POEM, COMPLAINT HIS FINAL WORDS". New York Daily News. Retrieved December 26, 2009.
  16. ^ Eaton, Leslie (August 31, 2005). "THE AD CAMPAIGN; A Morgenthau Attack, for Liberal Voters". The New York Times. Retrieved December 31, 2009. THE SCRIPT -- A narrator says: For district attorney, a clear choice. Eliot Spitzer calls Bob Morgenthau the best prosecutor in the nation. Morgenthau's innovative policies have brought crime in Manhattan down to record lows. And Morgenthau is leading the fight against the death penalty. Leslie Crocker Snyder supports the death penalty. She even told one defendant that she would have been willing to give him the lethal injection herself. Leslie Crocker Snyder. Wrong on the death penalty. Wrong for Manhattan.
  17. ^ "When to End an Era". The New York Times. August 30, 2005. Retrieved December 31, 2009. There are some aspects of Ms. Snyder's record that give us pause. Unlike Mr. Morgenthau, she supports the death penalty.
  18. ^ Powell, Michael; Rashbaum, William K.; Weiser, Benjamin (February 27, 2009). "Morgenthau Heads for Door, Legacy Assured". The New York Times. Retrieved January 8, 2010. A liberal Democratic lion, he never once sought the death penalty; and yet the city’s most confrontational mayors, Edward I. Koch and Rudolph W. Giuliani, hesitated to slash at him.
  19. ^ "New Ideas". Archived from the original on September 23, 2009. Retrieved December 31, 2009. Capital punishment is contrary to our values as New Yorkers. It is immoral and it is wrong. I have always opposed capital punishment, and will lead the effort against any attempt to revive it in New York.
  20. ^ "Senate Passes Death Penalty Legislation". March 9, 2005. Retrieved December 31, 2009. Senator Thomas P. Morahan announced that the New York State Senate passed legislation that will reinstate the death penalty for criminals who kill police officers. The Senate also passed a bill that would amend the state’s death penalty law to fix a provision that was ruled invalid by the state Court of Appeals.
  21. ^ Cooper, Michael; Ramirez, Anthony (March 10, 2005). "New York: Albany: Senate Votes To Restore Execution". The New York Times. Retrieved December 31, 2009. The Republican-led State Senate voted yesterday to restore New York's death penalty, but the Democratic-controlled Assembly has shown little inclination to follow suit. The vote in the Senate was 37 to 22, mostly along party lines.
  22. ^ "Senate Passes Bill To Establish Death Penalty For Cop Killers". May 29, 2008. Retrieved December 31, 2009. The New York State Senate today passed legislation, sponsored by Senator Martin Golden (R-C, Brooklyn), that would establish the death penalty for criminals who kill police officers.
  23. ^ "Governor Cuomo to Advance Legislation to Remove Death Penalty from State Law in Solidarity with Pope Francis". Governor Andrew M. Cuomo. 2 August 2018.

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