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Major Ruling on New York's Death Penalty

By Mark Scott

Buffalo, NY – A major ruling Tuesday on the state's death penalty law. The Court of Appeals -- New York's highest court -- ruled that the first man condemned to death under the 1995 capital punishment law cannot be executed.

Darrel Harris was sentenced to die by lethal injection for killing three people inside a Brooklyn bar in December 1996.

The judges said that the law at the time of his arrest violated his constitutional right to a trial by jury. The court ruled that the law essentially coerced defendants into pleading guilty instead of exercising their right to a jury trial.

The Court of Appeals ruling follows several other court rulings in recent weeks that call into question the future of the death penalty, not only in New York, but across the country. David Kaczynski of the group "New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty" said he senses a shift in public opinion.

"I think the impetus for this re-examination is coming from a grass-roots level," he said. "People familiar with the process -- lawyers, the American Bar Association -- have a sense that the process isn't working, that the system is broken."

Still, Tuesday's Court of Appeals does not strike down New York's death penalty law. Five other inmates remain on the state's death row and all have appealed their death sentences.

As for Harris, the court ordered him to be resentenced. That means Harris now faces a maximum sentence of life-without-parole.