Shortly after 2 a.m. Friday, the state of North Carolina executed Frank Chandler by lethal injection for the murder of 90-year-old Doris Poore.
Less than 10 hours later, beside a tree planted in front of the downtown Hall of Justice, a group of about 20 Rochesterians gathered with Chandler and others like him in mind. "This flowering tree planted in memory of the victims of homicide in Monroe County, April 1991," reads a plaque below the tree.
The group --- which goes by the name "Reconciliation Network: Don't Kill in My Name" --- is dedicated to ending the death penalty in New York State. They've met beside the tree every month for nearly 10 years, ever since the state's death penalty law was enacted in 1995.
Now, as a new legislature heads to Albany following the recent elections, groups like Reconciliation Network as well as capital punishment proponents will be watching the proceedings closely. This legislature will likely decide the fate of the state's capital statute.
In the decade since the state adopted a death penalty law, no one has yet been put to death. In June, the state's highest court ruled that the law's sentencing guidelines unconstitutionally favor the imposition of the death penalty. Under the statute, if jurors deadlock between death and life in prison without parole during the sentencing phase of a capital case, a judge then imposes 20-25 years to life, which carries the possibility of parole. That might coerce jurors into approving a death penalty to prevent violent offenders from ever being freed, the court reasoned.
"In the name of the Eternal One," Clare Regan intones, then pauses.
"Eternal One, hear our prayer," comes the response. Reconciliation Network offers prayers for those on death row, along with their families, and the families of both the murder victims and the executed murderers. They also pray for the anonymous agents of the state who are tasked with carrying out the execution.
"They find that it's very traumatic for those who participate," in the executions, explains Regan, who led the quasi-liturgical event.
Like others who want to see the death penalty terminated, Regan is pinning her hopes on the State Assembly, where opposition to capital punishment is fiercest even though Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has said that he favors it. According to Regan, "He was going to call the Assembly back into session [to pass a quick fix-it measure] and the Democratic Caucus said 'Oh, no you don't.'" Regan believes that if the Assembly passes a revised statute with the necessary constitutional safeguards in it, "It'll be almost impossible to put someone to death in New York."
Monroe County District Attorney Michael Green is more interested in seeing the current stalemate resolved than which way the legislature chooses to do it.
"My job as DA isn't to make the laws, it's to enforce the laws that are made. And if the legislature sees fit to enact the death penalty, I don't have any qualms about enforcing it and if they don't, I'll enforce the law as they write it," he says.
"That being said, what is extremely frustrating for me as a prosecutor is to have a statute on the books that requires the time and commitment and dedication of resources that this one does, but then have it in name only," says Green. "If we're going to have a death penalty, we should have one that is an actual death penalty, and if we're not, we should get it off the books and stop kidding people."
Green's frustration is palpable as he speaks of the sense of limbo those involved in capital cases often feel.
"It puts me in the very difficult situation as prosecutor of dealing with victims' families and continuously having to explain to them that we have a death penalty, but because of court decisions the death penalty is not in effect right now, but the legislature could act at any time and revive it, and if they revive it, it may or may not be retroactive to your case, we don't know that," he says. "I feel very strongly that the legislature ought to act one way or the other and either fix it or get rid of it, but don't leave us hanging in this gray area."