3/13/95 | Index | Next | Back

Locals split over DA's death decision

By Benjamin Ames, Staff Reporter

District Attorney Robert Johnson is standing firm against critics who question his refusal to seek the death penalty in murder cases.

Speaking on the same day Gov. George Pataki signed the death penalty back into law, Johnson said Tuesday he once helped convict an innocent man as an assistant DA and he would not want to see an innocent person executed on his watch.

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was among the first to criticize Johnson, saying the borough prosecutor took an oath to uphold the law and that if he couldn't do it he should consider resigning.

The law, which takes effect Sept. 1, will give prosecutors the option of seeking life in prison without parole, or death by lethal injection in some murder cases.

Still, on the streets, some residents voiced support for the DA.

"I agree with Robert Johnson," said Mark Eric Francis, 32, as he stood on the courthouse steps. "The death penalty is just an election tool to kill the blacks and Puerto Ricans. It's a legal form of lynching."

Last year, 609 people were charged with murder in the borough, according to Cherise Campbell, in the district attorney's office. Some officials estimate that as many as 20 percent of the murder cases in the state could be classified as capital crimes.

"While I will exercise my discretion to aggressively pursue life without parole in every appropriate case," said Johnson in a statement, "it is my present intention not to utilize the death penalty."

The borough's state legislators voted almost unanimously against the bill. Bronx state senators voted three to one against it, and the assembly members voted eight to two against it.

Assemblyman Jeffrey Klein, a Democrat representing Fordham/Norwood, cosponsored the bill.

"I think Bob Johnson's a great DA," he said, "but he's too quick to say he wouldn't use it. You have to take the death penalty on a case-by-case basis."

Johnson, he said, was responsible for enforcing the decisions of the legislature.

Klein cited Colin Ferguson, the recently convicted Long Island Rail Road gunman, as an example of someone he would execute. "Here's a guy who deserves the death penalty," said Klein. "He's not going to be rehabilitated, and justice warrants that someone like that receive the death penalty." Ferguson cannot be sentenced to death because the law has not taken effect.

Sen. Guy Velella, a Republican representing Williamsbrige/Morris Park, cast the borough's only vote in support of the bill in the Senate. He thinks there will be very little immediate effect on the legal system, however, according to Patrick Collins, a spokesman.

"From the time of Sept. 1 to the first actual execution will be years, probably," said Collins. "There will be a long delay, with all the legal challenges by defendants."

Police Officer Samuel Maldonado, of the Bronx Task Force, also supports capital punishment. He criticized Johnson's refusal to apply the law, saying the district attorney "doesn't see through the eyes of a police officer. It's a different feeling when you're in your office and when you're in front of one of your police officers that's bleeding."

At the courthouse, lawyers' opinions were split. "In certain cases, it's really appropriate," said a lawyer who asked not to be identified. "You get someone who burned a young girl alive, they deserve to die."

The lawyer admitted a big problem with capital punishment is that its mistakes are irrevocable.

Joseph Brodsky, a civil lawyer, disagreed. "I don't think it works," he said. "It doesn't deter, and it's not fairly applied. I don't think they're going to use it that much, anyway."

Borough President Fernando Ferrer supports Johnson's position. "He has saluted Robert Johnson for his courage," said Clint Roswell, a Ferrer spokesman. "And he believes, likewise, that the death penalty is very symbolic, but is not a quick fix, not a deterrent."

Civil rights groups are preparing to bring suits against the law itself. But they must wait until a criminal has been sentenced until they can defend him, or attack the bill.

The Bronx Beat, March 13, 1995