Capital punishment in New York (state)

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Sing Sing correctional facility was where the execution chamber for New York was located prior to abolition.

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.

On June 24, 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 no valid statute relating to capital punishment since then. Subsequent legislative attempts at fixing or replacing the statute have failed,[2] and in July 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]

Colonial period and statehood[edit]

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.[7] In 1796, New York abolished the death penalty for crimes other than murder and treason, but arson was made a capital crime in 1808.[7]

Temporary abolition[edit]

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.[8]

Introduction of the electric chair[edit]

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.[9] 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".[10] 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 caught 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.[11]

Famous cases[edit]

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 the electric chair in 1928 for the murder of her husband. Infamously, a photographer from the Chicago Tribune smuggled a small camera into the execution chamber and snapped a picture of Snyder after the executioner pulled the switch; it was the first known photograph of an electric chair execution, and it remains one of the only known photographs of such.

A lesser known but contemporaneously notorious case dates to January 1936, when serial killer Albert Fish was put to death for the cannibal murder of 10-year-old Grace Budd. He was confirmed to have committed at least three murders, but he is suspected of being involved in nine and, prior to his execution, he claimed to have murdered over 100 people. At age 65, Fish was one of the oldest people ever executed at Sing Sing, tied with Michael Rossi, a 65-year-old man who was executed in Sing Sing's electric chair on June 29, 1922. The oldest person to be executed in any New York electric chair was Charles Bonier, who was 75 when he died in Auburn's electric chair on July 31, 1907.

Other notable cases are those of seven members of Mafia hit squad Murder, Inc. between 1941 and 1944, including Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, the only mob boss to ever receive the death penalty after being convicted of murder, and some of his associates, including Emanuel "Mendy" Weiss and Louis Capone, who were executed on March 4, 1944, the same night as Buchalter.

Another notable case was that of the "Lonely Hearts Killers" Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck, who were convicted of three murders but are believed to have killed as many as 20 women between 1947 and 1949. They were executed together on March 8, 1951.

Arguably the most famous execution in state history (although occurring under federal, and not under New York state law) occurred in June, 1953, when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were put to death at Sing Sing after their conviction on federal espionage charges for passing secrets of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. The Rosenbergs were the only American civilians to be executed for espionage-related activity during the Cold War. The executions, especially Ethel's execution, remain controversial today; in 2015, 11 members of the New York City Council declared that "the government wrongfully executed Ethel Rosenberg," and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer officially recognized "the injustice suffered by Ethel Rosenberg and her family" and declared September 28, 2015, to be the "Ethel Rosenberg Day of Justice in the Borough of Manhattan."


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.[12]

Furman v. Georgia[edit]

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 execution[edit]

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.[13] Grasso was transported to Buffalo Niagara International Airport and flown to Oklahoma. He was executed on March 20, 1995.[14]

1995 reinstatement[edit]

Capital punishment was reinstated in New York in 1995 when Governor George Pataki signed a new statute into law, which provided for execution by lethal injection.

Statute struck down in 2004[edit]

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 elections[edit]

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".[15] The New York Times endorsed Snyder but expressed concern about her support for the death penalty.[16] 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.[17]

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".[18]

Legislative efforts to reinstate the death penalty[edit]

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,[19][20] 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,[21] but the Assembly did not act on the legislation.[citation needed]

Death row disestablished[edit]

In July 2008, Governor David Paterson issued an executive order requiring the disestablishment of death row and the closure of the state's execution chamber at Green Haven Correctional Facility.[22]

Statute repeal effort[edit]

Even though the current death penalty statute was ruled unconstitutional and left null and unenforceable 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.[23]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • 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. ^ 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. ^ a b Eisenstadt, Peter; Moss, Laura-Eve, eds. (2005). "Agriculture". The Encyclopedia of New York State. p. 261. ISBN 081560808X. LCCN 2005001032.
  8. ^ "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.
  9. ^ David Marc. "Southwick, Alfred Porter", American National Biography Online - 2000
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ Lumer, Michael; Tenney, Nancy (1995). "The Death Penalty in New York: An Historical Perspective". Journal of Law and Policy. 4 (1).
  12. ^ Craig Brandon, The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History, 1999
  13. ^ Sack, Kevin (January 12, 1995). "New York Transfers Killer to Oklahoma To Await Execution". The New York Times. Retrieved December 26, 2009.
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ 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.
  16. ^ "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.
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ "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.
  19. ^ "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.
  20. ^ 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.
  21. ^ "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.
  22. ^ Scott, Brendan. "GOV PULLS SWITCH ON DEATH CELL" (Archive). New York Daily News. July 24, 2008. Retrieved on September 2, 2010. "The Department of Correctional Services has quietly struck from the books a 40-year-old rule that designated the upstate Green Haven Correctional Facility the state's "Capital Punishment Unit."[...] Although seven defendants were sentenced to death after then-Gov. George Pataki, a Republican, signed the law, the death house has never hosted an execution.[...]"
  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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