- The Washington Times - Monday, May 6, 2002

The future of New York's never-used death-penalty law will be at stake today when the state's highest court hears Darrel K. Harris' groundbreaking appeal.
The full Court of Appeals has the option to rule on his mental state or motives, but the judges also will consider many larger questions in the case of the onetime-hero prison guard now first in line to die on New York's death row. He was convicted of killing three persons at Brooklyn's Club Happiness in 1996.
"Certainly there are claims on which the fate of the death penalty in New York could turn, but one can as easily imagine the courts deciding the case on the narrowest ground," New York Capital Defender Kevin Doyle said Friday.
The death penalty itself will be on trial with four hours reserved for argument on more than 40 constitutional issues raised by Harris' three-lawyer team from the state Capital Defender Office, created in 1995 in conjunction with the law they now challenge.
The paperwork is immense. Defense lawyers filed 1,039 pages in their appeal and reply, and prosecutors filled 1,181 pages. Mr. Doyle said the size of the briefs is of little moment.
"If it is noteworthy, it's because human life is given such short shrift in other jurisdictions," he said. "The public will come to understand that in New York the death penalty is not going to be carried out in a slapdash, lick-and-a-promise fashion."
New York's last execution was in 1963. The state Court of Appeals struck down the last legislative effort in 1984.
Jonathan L. Frank, who led the Brooklyn prosecution and is now with a private law firm, and Keith Dolan, a deputy district attorney in Brooklyn, seek to uphold the conviction of Harris, now 44, who blames the killings on being emotionally upset over insults at the club. At the end of a three-month trial, Harris' lawyer asked the jury to convict his client only of manslaughter.
Harris was honored by the city prison agency in 1986 for saving another officer's life during a riot.
Among those filing briefs supporting the defense was the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Cornell Death Penalty Project.
Christopher Dunn, assistant legal director for the ACLU state affiliate, focused his brief on charges the state law is applied at random, supported by statistics showing the death penalty was sought in just 16 cases out of 701 in which prosecutors formally considered capital punishment. Six of those 701 defendants were sentenced to death over seven years.
"The very fact that there are that few convictions out of all the people who are eligible for capital prosecutions is strong evidence that people are being randomly selected in New York for a potential death sentence," Mr. Dunn said.
Mr. Doyle acknowledged the spectrum of constitutional issues has no particular application to Harris' case and would have been raised by whomever was first among the state's six condemned prisoners to reach the high court. The unique law provides for appeal to the top state court directly from the trial court with no intermediate stops.


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