N.Y. Ruling Invalidates 4 Death Sentences

The state's highest court Thursday threw out the death sentence imposed on a Long Island killer and declared a sentencing provision of New York's capital punishment statute violates the state constitution.

The 4-3 ruling by the state Court of Appeals not only spares the life of Stephen LaValle (search), who was convicted and condemned to die for raping and killing a jogger in 1997, but also appears to invalidate capital sentences against the other three men on death row in New York.

All four men were sentenced under a provision of the death penalty law that is unconstitutional because it might coerce jurors into voting for death for defendants when jurors do not want to, the majority of the court said Thursday.

In New York, judges must tell jurors during the penalty phase of capital trials that they can choose between death or life without parole for defendants. Judges also must say that if jurors deadlock between the two punishments, the law orders judges to sentence defendants to between 20 and 25 years to life in prison, a sentence that carries with it the possibility of parole.

"The deadlock instruction gives rise to an unconstitutionally palpable risk that one or more jurors who cannot bear the thought that a defendant may walk the streets again ... will join jurors favoring death in order to avoid the deadlock sentence," wrote Judge George Bundy Smith for the majority of the court.

The judges ordered that LaValle be resentenced to life without parole or a parole-eligible sentence of between 20 and 25 years to life.

Besides affecting the three men already convicted in death penalty cases, the majority of the court also ruled that the nine pending capital prosecutions in which death notices have been served on defendants can proceed — but that life without parole has to be the maximum sentence imposed.