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County DA Says Death Penalty in NY Suspended by Court Ruling

By Mark Scott

Buffalo, NY – The state's highest court is throwing out the death sentence for a Long Island killer and is declaring that a part of New York's capital punishment statute violates the constitution.

The Court of Appeals is calling into question a key sentencing provision in the death penalty law. Erie County District Attorney Frank Clark says at issue is whether jurors might be coerced into voting for death for defendants when they do not want to.

"What if somebody wanted life without parole, but knew that if they were deadlocked with other jurors, that the court could sentence the defendant to a term that provides for the possibility of parole," Clark explained. "That juror may feel coerced because of that and change their vote from life without parole to death."

The ruling spares the life of Stephen LaValle, who was convicted and condemned to die for raping and killing a jogger in 1997. It also appears to invalidate the capital sentences against the other three men on death row in New York. Clark says the high court has, in effect, suspended the death penalty.

"I think a lot of people are disappointed because all the work that was done -- and all the turmoil that's created with the victims' families -- has been undone by this decision," Clark said.

State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno says the ruling is "irresponsible." He's pledging to change the death penalty law to make sure it conforms to the constitution.