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Death Penalty: No
Manhattan skyline. Photo by Massimo Catarinella
New York's hisory of capital punishment goes back to colonial times, with the second most executions of any state from 1608 to 1972, after Virginia. Before the invention of the electric chair most executions were carried out by hanging, although other methods including burning at the stake, death by firing squad, and even the breaking wheel were used. Although there were inmates on death row until 2007, no execution has taken place since that of Eddie Mays in 1963.
Perhaps the most notable execution to take place in the State of New York was that of William Kemmler in 1890. Convicted of murdering his common law wife with a hatchet, Kemmler was the first man executed with the newly developed electric chair. (The electric chair used to execute Kemmler is pictured, right.)
Previous executions had been carried out almost exclusively by hanging. The State of New York had assigned a committee to develop a more humane method of execution. The concept of execution by means of electricity materialized after a dentist witnessed an intoxicated man die quickly and painlessly (in his estimation) after walking into exposed power lines. After several months of development, as well as a trial execution on a horse, it was determined that Kemmler would be the first to be executed in the electric chair. Kemmler's appeal of the new method reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld electrocution as a constitutional form of punishment.
On August 6th, 1890, Kemmler was strapped into the electric chair at the Auburn State Prison in front of a small group of witnesses. The switch was thrown, and a 1000 volt current passed through Kemmler's body for 17 seconds after which he was declared dead. However, several witnesses noted that Kemmler was still breathing and heard Kemmler groaning softly. The switch was thrown again using a higher voltage. Witnesses reported an awful smell of burning flesh and singeing hair, and blood vessels beneath Kemmlers skin burst and bled. Despite the gruesome accounts of the electrcution, the electric chair soon became the dominant form of execution in the United States until its replacement with lethal injection.
Milestones in abolition/reinstatement
The death penalty has been abolished and reinstated several times in New York. New York's death penalty was accidentally abolished in 1860, when the legislature passed measures that repealed hanging as a method of execution but provided no other means of carrying out a death sentence. The mistake was corrected a year later in 1861.
Lewis E. Lawes, the warden of Sing Sing Prison from 1920-1941, advocated for the abolition of capital punishment. Although he supervised 303 executions, Lawes believed that capital punishment was inequitable and not a deterrent. He noted that barely 1 in 80 killers was executed, and said "Did you ever see a rich man go the whole route through to the Death House? I don’t know of any.”
In 1967, a compromise law was passed allowing for a very limited death penalty. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated all death penalty statutes in the country in Furman v. Georgia. The New York legislature rewrote the state's statute in 1973, providing for a mandatory death sentence for murdering a police officer, a correctional officer, or a murder in prison by an inmate serving a life sentence. In 1977, New York's high court effectively struck down the death penalty for the murder of a police officer or a correctional officer, and a 1984 ruling struck down capital punishment for murders committed by inmates serving life sentences, effectively abolishing New York's death penalty. From 1978 until 1994, measures repeatedly passed both houses of New York's state legislature that would have expanded or reinstated the death penalty, only to be vetoed by governors Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo.
In 1995 newly-elected Governor George Pataki fulfilled a campaign promise and signed legislation reinstating the death penalty in New York, designating lethal injection as the new method of execution. In 2004, that statute was declared unconstitutional by the New York Court of Appeals, and in 2007 the last remaining death sentence was reduced to life, leaving New York with a vacant death row and no viable death penalty laws. In 2008 Governor David Paterson issued an executive order requiring the removal of all execution equipment from state facilities.