2007-10-31 / Editorials

Court Of Appeals Got It Wrong

Editorial

The New York State Court of Appeals, the state's highest judicial body, last week decided by a four-to-three vote to set aside the death sentence facing John Taylor, the only person on this state's Death Row. Taylor, the mastermind behind the May 2000 Wendy's Massacre in which seven employees of a Wendy's Restaurant in Flushing were herded into the restaurant basement, bound, gagged and shot in the head, will now be resentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Taylor and an accomplice, Craig Godineaux, entered the Wendy's Restaurant on Main Street in Flushing, intending to rob the place of the night's receipts. Taylor had worked at the restaurant and knew its layout, so without attracting attention of passersby, he and his accomplice easily overpowered the seven employees who had finished their shift and were preparing to close for the night and go home. Two of the employees survived the slaughter and lived to testify against Taylor and Godineaux.

Godineaux, who is mildly retarded, according to his attorneys, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. After three months of reflection and careful consideration of the facts in the case, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown decided to seek the death penalty for Taylor. Under the laws of the state of New York then in effect, Taylor, if convicted, could be sentenced either to death by lethal injection or a life sentence- a life sentence that carried with it the possibility of parole, although the trial judge indicated he could, and probably would, sentence Taylor to consecutive terms that made the possibility of his being paroled unlikely. The members of the Taylor jury were appalled at the prospect, however remote, of Taylor again walking the streets of New York City. They rendered what they felt was the only verdict possible- the death penalty.

In New York state, any death sentence is automatically appealed. Taylor's case ultimately came before the Court of Appeals, composed of a chief judge and six associate judges. The four-judge majority of the Appeals Court held that Taylor's death sentence could not stand, directing instead that he be resentenced. Taylor now faces life in prison without the possibility of parole- the result of a new law enacted after he and Godineaux were originally sentenced.

In the gracious and gentlemanly manner that characterizes everything he does, Brown accepted the Appeals Court ruling. "Our state's highest court has now spoken- albeit not with one voice- and it is for all of us to respect its decision," he said in a statement last week. Brown added that he hoped the ruling, which effectively abolishes the death penalty in New York state, would bring some closure to the families of those slain and the survivors.

We join with the district attorney in so hoping, but we doubt there will be much closure for the families of the slain: 27- year-old manager Jean-Dumel Auguste, Anita Smith, 22, Jeremy Mele, 18 or the two oldest workers, Ramon Nazario, 44, and Ali Ibadat, 51. Auguste, a Haitian immigrant, had become a United States citizen two years before the massacre and had become engaged to be married only a month before the murders. Smith worked with autistic children at Quality Services for Autistic Children in Astoria and hoped to become a social worker. Mele had participated in his high school's ROTC program and hoped to make the military a career. Nazario had been hired three months before the massacre at the Flushing Wendy's where his sister also worked; she was off that night. He left a two-year-old son. Ibadat, a recent immigrant, had left his wife and two children behind in Pakistan. He lived alone in a basement apartment in Ridgewood and sent every penny he could to his family, whose sole support he was.

The lives of the survivors, JaQuione Johnson, then 18, and Patrick Castro, then 23, were changed forever that night as well. Johnson sustained a bullet wound to the back of the head and Castro took a bullet through his cheeks, shattering his teeth. Seven years later they bear lasting physical and emotional scars and Castro was placed under police protection after receiving threats from some of Taylor's associates.

Arguments against the death penalty cite the Constitutional prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. We submit that the victims and the families and friends they left behind have been and still are subjected to lasting punishment that in no way could be considered kind or usual, the more so for its being completely undeserved. The Appeals Court, in setting aside the death penalty for Taylor and effectively putting an end to the death penalty in New York state, diminished the lives so arbitrarily and unjustly taken and the suffering the survivors still undergo.

We are well aware that the death penalty does not deter murderers from committing their crimes, be those crimes calculated with malice aforethought or committed in the heat of passion. Imposing the death penalty does, however, honor the memory of the victim or victims and indicates that we value the life or lives that were abruptly and maliciously ended. To provide Taylor with "three hots and a cot" for the rest of his life for being the instrument of death for five people and the grievous wounding of two more seems to us a very unequal tradeoff.

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