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Mario Cuomo's strong death penalty legacy

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo gives his father former

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo gives his father former Gov. Mario Cuomo a kiss at the governor's election headquarters after making a victory speech Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014, in Manhattan. Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

When it comes to the death penalty, Mario Cuomo governed during a very different time.

In the last few years, public support for the death penalty has reached an all-time low since its peak 20 years ago, according to Gallup, the research and polling firm. Death sentences have plummeted to a 20-year low and executions to a 40-year low. Eighteen states have repealed the death penalty, three have suspended executions, and five haven't had an execution in 10 years. Even conservatives and evangelicals, historically considered backers of the death penalty, are questioning it in record numbers.

Today, it is well known that states that impose the death penalty make mistakes, that it is applied unevenly, wastes millions of dollars, distracts from public safety, and puts the families of murder victims through hell. When Mario Cuomo was governor, those truths were heresy.

But his heresy was prescient.

New York didn't have a death penalty during his tenure, but lawmakers in Albany clamored for it, driven by that era's inflammatory politics of fear and crime. They sent a death penalty reinstatement bill to Cuomo's desk every year, and every year he vetoed it.

Cuomo's unwavering stance was no less than a miracle in those years. By 1989, he had vetoed the death penalty bill five times as governor. But for the first time in years, it seemed that the legislature might, indeed, have the votes to override the governor and make executions the law of the land. It's not surprising that emotions were high. It was the year of the brutal Central Park jogger attack and an ad campaign by Donald Trump calling for the death penalty (the five teenagers convicted of the crime have since been exonerated). Violent crime in New York reached a 25-year peak in 1990, claiming more than 2,000 lives in New York City alone. As a white teenager growing up in suburban New York, I remember hushed, terrified tones about crack wars and teardrop tattoos, not to mention at least one horror movie about a white couple's car breaking down in the Bronx. Nationally, more than 1.8 million people were the victims of violent crime in 1990. Support for the death penalty had surged to nearly 80 percent.

In the heat of those times, Cuomo could have done what many politicians would do: relent. Or he could have vetoed the bill silently, behind closed doors, in the dead of night, with wringing hands and a sweating brow.

But he did the opposite. Cuomo staged an event for the execution-hungry world to see, in front of an overflow crowd at the College of St. Rose, flanked by Roman Catholic Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, where the governor delivered a speech on the death penalty so prophetic that I teared up listening to it as I wrote this 25 years later.

"We, the people of New York, ought now, in this hour of fright, to show the way," he said. "We should refuse to allow this time to be marked forever in the pages of our history, as the time that we were driven back to one of the vestiges of our primitive condition, because we were not strong enough, because we were not intelligent enough, because we were not civilized enough, to find a better answer to violence . . . than violence."

His moral compass countered the popular view, but it was not out of touch. His recognition of the seething cry of anger among his constituents was very human.

"I have felt that anger myself, more than once," he said. "Like, too, many other citizens of this state, I know what it is to be violated -- and even to have one's closest family violated, in the most despicable ways." But he knew that the death penalty was not a salve for that anger.

Cuomo held the line for 12 years, but after he left office in 1995, New York brought back the death penalty. The experiment lasted a mere 10 years.

He set the stage for New Yorkers to see that the death penalty many of them hoped for -- a magical system that would manage to be cheap and efficient, accurate and fair, sweeping and yet also restrained -- did not exist. New York spent nearly $200 million to sentence a mere seven people to death and execute no one. Meanwhile, evidence was mounting in other states that innocent people had been sentenced to death. By 2005 we were ready to get rid of it. New York was the first state in the modern era to dismantle its death penalty. Five more states quickly followed suit. Although 32 states still have the death penalty on the books, lawmakers from Delaware to Nebraska are debating whether to be next to abandon it.

The vast majority of death sentences come from just 2 percent of all U.S. counties.

Cuomo's era, and the anger that shaped it, gave rise to a reactive, violent crime incarceration explosion that still defines American justice. In the broad debate about how we respond to violence, Cuomo was ahead of his time about one very important strand. But his words echo far beyond the death penalty.

Today, we grapple with turmoil borne in part of an increasingly militarized police force, an overreliance on prison as the answer to every social ill, and centuries of white fear projected onto black and brown people. Research has found staggering rates of post-traumatic stress disorder in urban areas with high exposure to violence, with levels as high or higher than among veterans returning from combat. This crisis of untreated trauma in underserved communities has significant social, economic, and public safety impacts.

As Cuomo vetoed the death penalty in 1989, he reminded New Yorkers about the importance of "old-fashioned" efforts to tackle the root causes of crime -- "education, housing, health care, good jobs and the opportunity to achieve them." They may wax and wane in popularity, he said, but they never lose their relevance.

His words ring as true today as they did in 1989. There is more work to be done.

Shari Silberstein is the executive director of Equal Justice USA, a national nonprofit organization.

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