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Capital Defender Office


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Capital Punishment in New York State: Statistics from Eight Years of Representation (1995 - 2003)

People v. LaValle and People v. Taylor

On June 24, 2004, the New York Court of Appeals in People v. LaValle held part of the death penalty statute unconstitutional.  Specifically, the Court found that the statute’s so-called deadlock provision – a sentencing instruction that trial courts were obligated to give the deliberating juries – was unduly coercive.  Concluding that only the Legislature could repair the statute, the Court directed that, in the meantime, first-degree murder cases could proceed noncapitally.  The Legislature has not acted to repair the statute.


On October 23, 2007, the Court of Appeals handed down its decision in the case of John Taylor, the last person remaining on death row.  The Court of Appeals, following LaValle, overturned Taylor's death sentence.  Taylor will now be resentenced noncapitally; he will spend the rest of his life in prison.


With Taylor's departure, death row will have been cleared.  New York City's Legal AId Society prevailed in one capital appeal. The Capital Defender Office prevailed in LaValle, Taylor, and four others. 


No death-noticed cases remain. Nothing points to a return of the death penalty to New York State. The Capital Defender Office has now closed out operations.  


Capital punishment was returned to the criminal statutes of New York State by Chapter 1 of the Laws of 1995, which took effect on September 1, 1995. The new law expanded the crime of first degree murder, and provided two new penalties for persons convicted of first degree murder: death and life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The Capital Defender Office [CDO] was established under New York State's death penalty statute and was given the statutory mandate of ensuring that defendants who cannot afford adequate representation in capital cases receive effective assistance of counsel. The statute also charged the CDO with creating an effective system of capital defense throughout New York State. This system of capital defense is ensured through several means, including:

  • providing direct representation of capital defendants;
  • helping to identify private attorneys to represent capital defendants;
  • entering agreements with legal aid societies and other defender organizations to accept appointments in capital cases;
  • monitoring the performance and accounting of such defender organizations;
  • providing private attorneys with continuing legal advice and other assistance;
  • promulgating standards that attorneys must meet to qualify to defend capital cases;
  • providing or arranging for representation in capital cases before permanent appointment of counsel;
  • providing the criminal defense bar with training and continuing legal education about death penalty practice and law.


Agency Structure

The CDO was governed by a three-person board of directors which met on a regular basis to review office policy. The Capital Defender, appointed by the Board of Directors, ran the agency and was responsible for building the state's capital defense system.  In 1995, the CDO established three offices to provide capital representation, one in Albany, one in Rochester, and one in New York City.  The Rochester office was closed on October 31, 2005, and the other two on June 13, 2008.

Capital Representation

Direct Representation by the CDO

The CDO's most important duty was to defend persons accused of crimes that might have been punishable by death. The CDO represented its clients from arraignment through trial, and upon conviction on direct appeal. Any person who was charged with first degree murder and was financially unable to obtain adequate representation, was entitled under the new law to capital counsel appointed by the court. Also, any indigent person who was accused of second-degree murder was entitled to appointed capital counsel if (1) the District Attorney was investigating with the aim of charging the person with first degree murder, and (2) the court found it reasonably likely that the District Attorney eventually would charge the person with first-degree murder.

Lawyers in Private Practice

The CDO, in consultation with the Administrative Board of the Judicial Conference, developed minimum standards for lead and associate capital counsel. Using these standards, the four Screening Panels established pursuant to the law reviewed applications from lawyers interested in handling capital cases, and created rosters of lawyers eligible for such appointment. The CDO assisted the Screening Panels in developing an application process for attorneys who sought to handle capital cases.

The CDO frequently had called on criminal defense lawyers in private practice during the previous four years. Each lawyer had substantial criminal defense experience and had attended a CDO training session.

Public Defender Organizations

The law permitted the CDO to enter agreements with legal aid societies, public defender offices, and other not-for-profit organizations providing criminal defense services.  Since 1995, the CDO entered into agreements with the Legal Aid Society of New York to provide capital representation in New York City and with the Public Defenders of Broome, Chautauqua and Wyoming counties.  At present, the CDO is closed and no agreements are still in place.