Judge George Bundy Smith, 80, Dies; Wrote Ruling Voiding New York Death Penalty

He ruled that defendants in New York City had to be arraigned within 24 hours of their arrest, that the Legislature could not arbitrarily kill bills it had already approved, and that the state had shortchanged New York City’s schools. He also awarded back pay to a police officer who had been fired because she posed nude for a magazine.

In 1999, Judge Smith insisted that Ralph J. Tortorici was mentally incompetent and should not have been tried — without a competency hearing — on charges of holding 35 students and a professor hostage in a State University of New York classroom in Albany. Six months after the Court of Appeals upheld the conviction, Mr. Tortorici hanged himself in a psychiatric hospital.

“George Bundy Smith had the independence and the courage among all his colleagues to stick his neck out and say that this man should not have been prosecuted,” Prof. Vincent M. Bonventre of Albany Law School wrote in an email.

The 2004 capital punishment decision was the fourth time the Court of Appeals had overturned a death sentence since a new statute was passed in 1995 to overcome the constitutional shortcomings of earlier measures.

Judge Smith had foreshadowed his doubts about the statute’s legality in 2003, when he expressed concerns that in most states the death penalty had been imposed disproportionately on blacks.

“New York is no less deserving of a badge of shame for the role race played in capital punishment,” he wrote at the time.

The ruling written by Judge Smith directly affected four inmates on death row, including Stephen LaValle, a former Long Island roofer who raped and killed a schoolteacher, Cynthia Quinn, in 1997, and whose appeal was before the court.

Writing for the slim majority, Judge Smith affirmed the conviction, but said a so-called deadlock provision unique to New York had coerced jurors in the penalty phase of deliberations to vote for death. According to that provision, if a jury failed to decide between death and life without parole, the judge would have to impose a sentence that would qualify the defendant for parole after as little as 20 years.

Photo

Mug shot of George Bundy Smith after he was arrested for ordering coffee at a whites-only lunch counter in Montgomery, Ala., in 1961.

Credit
Montgomery County, Alabama, Sheriff’s Office

“The deadlock instruction,” Judge…

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