By David Brand
As a young state assemblymember in March 1995, Melinda Katz voted to reinstate the death penalty. Katz, the current Queens borough president, was one of 94 members of the Democratic-controlled New York State Assembly to vote in favor of the measure, which passed both chambers of the state legislature and was signed into law by then-Gov. George Pataki.
More than 23 years later, Katz is seeking the Democratic nomination for Queens County district attorney and touting a progressive platform that includes bail reform and a crackdown on hate crimes, but her early death penalty support does not sit well with criminal justice reformers.
In a statement to the Eagle, Katz said that she is now “100 percent opposed to the death penalty.”
Public defenders and criminal justice reform experts, however, say that her death penalty vote suggests she would seek the toughest sentence possible in order to secure plea deals.
“Like a chronic disease, supporting maximally punitive sentencing with no empirical return on public safety is not something that just goes away,” said Rory Fleming, a death penalty expert and the founder of FogLight Strategies, a consulting firm that helps elect progressive DAs.
Katz acknowledged that the death penalty is disproportionately applied to people of color and said a distorted desire for justice can compel people to support capital punishment.
“In addition, it is clear that when it is applied in other states, research has shown a clear racial bias, which can never be acceptable for any enforcement of laws,” Katz said. “But growing up having lost my mother to someone who broke the law, I understand that to many, the desire for justice can become a desire for punishment.”
Katz’s mother was killed by a drunk driver when Katz was a child. The district attorney hopeful said her view on sentencing and crime deterrents have changed over the past two decades.
“As I’ve grown and in the 24 years since I was in the assembly, I came to realize that no punishment can ever undo the damage of a crime committed, and a far better path is stronger crime prevention in the first place,” she continued. “My position on this changed over two decades ago, and I was grateful to have the opportunity as a Councilmember to vote for a full moratorium for this punishment in 2002.”
Regardless, Fleming said, Katz’s 1995 death penalty vote still matters today, especially in light of how criminal justice reform advocates have criticized Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown for his previous stances on justice policies that have disproportionately punished poor people of color.
“Katz cannot say in good faith that her pro-death penalty stance in the 1990s is irrelevant to today,” said Fleming.“DA Brown supported the cruel Rockefeller drug laws until their fall in 2004, which is part of why progressives do not support him or his administration.”
Legal Aid attorney Finde Gbollie also questioned the extent to which Katz would seek whatever harsh sentence was en vogue during her time in office.
“If you believe that the purpose of the criminal justice system should be rehabilitation then believing in the death penalty is diametrically opposed to that notion and [it shows] you believe the extreme is ultimately the way to resolve issues,” Gbollie said. “Everything is framed from that lens — people can’t be saved, they can’t be redeemed, it’s not about rehabilitation it’s about punishment. And that’s the problem with the criminal justice system now.”
The current maximum sentence is life without the possibility for parole, a sentence which Katz said needs “to be evaluated within the law on a case by case basis."
Reformers criticize maximum sentencing because it contributes to mass incarceration.
As of 2016, roughly one out of every five inmates in New York, more than 9,800 people, were incarcerated on life sentences or virtual life sentences — prison terms that exceed life expectancy, according to a statistics compiled by the Sentencing Project.
New York has the third highest number of inmates in prison on life sentences in the country after California and Louisiana, the Sentencing Project reports.
To Katz’s allies, however, that death penalty support has no bearing on her current DA candidacy or her perspective on criminal justice. Those allies include Assemblymember David Weprin, who has explicitly condemned Katz’ death penalty vote in the past.
In 2009, Weprin ran against Katz in the race for city comptroller — a seat ultimately won by current state Sen.-elect John Liu. In a campaign questionnaire given to all comptroller candidates by the New York Daily News, Weprin cited the death penalty support as Katz’ biggest weakness.
“Weakness: having voted for the death penalty as a member of the NYS Assembly and lacking any finance experience in the public and private sector,” Weprin wrote in response to the News.
Weprin has since become a strong Katz supporter. He stood feet away from her when she officially kicked off her campaign for DA at a rally in Forest Hills on Dec. 4.
“I don’t know what her position [on the death penalty] is now and I don’t think it would change my support for her,” Weprin said. “I’m supporting her because I’ve worked closely with her and I’ve seen her reaching out to all the communities of Queens.”
Weprin said Katz has a “compassionate approach” and that analyzing positions on the death penalty is irrelevant because the New York State Court of Appeals determined that the death penalty was unconstitutional in 2004.
“It’s up to the legislature to make the laws and we don’t have the death penalty,” he said. [The DA] has to deal with laws as they are.”
Other Katz supporters in the assembly also said that they do not consider her previous death penalty support a problem.
“The world has changed in 20 years,” Assemblymember Jeffrion Aubrey told the Eagle at Katz’ campaign kickoff event. “The world doesn’t stay the same and neither do we.”
Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi, who also attended Katz’ rally, did not offer an opinion on her death penalty support.
“That’s interesting,” Hevesi said. “I’d like to know her position on that now.”
However, he added, it is does not make a different because capital punishment is anathema to Democratic Party policy and “no one talks about the death penalty any more in the assembly.”