Officer's murder reopens death penalty debate

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 July, 2007, 12:00am

New York

There was a sea of uniformed New York police at the funeral of Russel Timoshenko last Thursday. The 23-year-old officer was shot twice in the head after checking out a stolen car in Brooklyn and died a few days later. His partner - 26-year-old Herman Yan, a son of a couple originally from Hong Kong - was shot in the arm and chest, and saved only by his bulletproof vest.

Timoshenko's parents moved to the US from Belarus 16 years ago, seeking to carve out a more prosperous future. Now they have lost their only son. The devastated couple didn't conceal their loathing of the three who have been charged with murder. 'They should be torn apart,' the father said.

If convicted, under New York state law they would spend most of the rest of their lives (if not all their lives) in prison. There is no death penalty. It was restored by previous governor George Pataki after he was elected in 1994. Ten years later, the state's Court of Appeals struck it down when it found part of the law was unconstitutional. Since then, there have been efforts to revive the death penalty, but supporters have less leverage with crime statistics improving.

Dead police officers, though, are another matter. In the past 18 months, nine police officers and state troopers have been killed in the state and, in some cases, the perpetrators admitted that they killed them because there was no death penalty and they had nothing to fear.

In Timoshenko's case, all three suspects are career criminals who have served multiple prison terms for crimes ranging from rape and robbery to assault and illegal possession of firearms.

'There is only one message I want to send out to the individuals [who shot Timoshenko]: You took a life, you pay with your life,' said Martin Golden, a senator who helped to pass a bill in the New York Senate last week to reinstate the death penalty for killing police. 'When the bad guys recognise they are going to get the death penalty, they will think twice before they pull that trigger.'

But opponents believe that isn't a strong argument. 'There is no evidence that death penalty acts as any kind of deterrent,' said Bob Liff, the spokesman for New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty. 'People who commit murder don't stop and analyse. This is not a rational undertaking.'

Mr Liff, whose uncle and a cousin are both police officers, said he shares the grief of Timoshenko's family, but the 'death penalty is not the answer'. He said New York state has one of the highest number of wrongful convictions in the country. Reinstating the death penalty could mean that some mistakes cannot be remedied.

Also, the appeals process by those on death row can take decades, rubbing salt in the wounds of the victim's families. 'Why don't we let the families move on with their lives?' he asked.

A recent poll showed the majority of New Yorkers support the death penalty. But in previous polls, when they were asked to choose between the death penalty and life imprisonment without parole, more people favoured the latter.

Among legislators, there is only one Republican against capital punishment, but the Democrat-controlled State Assembly has largely been on Mr Liff's side, and it hasn't shown any signs of change.

But despite the slim chances of changing the law, Senator Golden said he would not give up. 'All you have to do is to take a look into the eyes of Mr and Mrs Timoshenko at the funeral. Their son's life should not go in vain,' he said.