Queens District Attorney Richard Brown
faced the families of the men and women who were shot in the head in Wendys basement
this week and told them that one suspect would spend his life in prison and another would
face death by lethal injection.
It was a decision that took over 180 days to make. "It is a
difficult decision, to seek the death penalty," Brown told the Tribune this
week, "but the key is thoroughness of the process, certainty of the facts and the
benefit of all the facts and all the circumstances," Brown explained, "I try to
leave my personal feelings out of it . . . of sympathy for example . . . and focus on the
law as it exists pertaining to the facts as I have come to appreciate them."
"In all capital cases, the process is lengthy and
intense," Brown explained. "I have meetings with the families, I feel for the
depth of their anguish and I am interested in finding out their thoughts about the death
penalty. Most families are looking for that which they see as the most severe punishment
as possible. A fair number . . . aside from issues of morality . . . feel that the maximum
punishment is life without hope of parole in a maximum security prison. But I find both
points of view."
Craig Godineaux and John Taylor standing Queens
for the first time on May 28, listening
to the charges against them.
Pastel Sketch by Shirley
and Andrea Shepard
But for Brown, the key to determining
whether death is the sentence to seek is always the same: "weigh the aggravating
facts against the mitigating circumstances."
An eight member Capital Review Committee
made up of Assistant District Attorneys who are executive assistants or bureau chiefs
review the evidence when the D.A. considers a capital case.
"I like to sit in on the initial
meetings," Brown explained, "to see the video taped statements, listen to the
detectives describe the crime scene and the details of the medical examiners report.
It depends on the nature of the case, but at some point when the Committee begins
deliberations, I step out. I dont want to intrude. But when they have concluded
[their deliberations], I step back in and I go around the table and ask for the points of
view of each member."
However, as the final decision falls to
him, "There are some parts that I will involve myself directly" to get the best
sense he can of the crime and the suspect. "I was in the basement [of Wendys].
I saw with my own eyes exactly what had transpired."
By state law, Brown has 120 days from the
date of the defendants arainment on the indictment to make his decision. The
Wendys killings happened on May 24, and so those 120 days expired on Nov. 20.
On the day of Browns
Nov. 20 deadline for a decision, he was approached by the defense council with a
psychologists examination showing that Godineaux was "mentally retarded"
under the definition created by the American Association of Mental Retardation and
accepted by the state. Brown explained that New York State death penalty law clearly
states that "unlike a person who is found not responsible by reason of insanity, a
mentally retarded person may be held criminally responsible for his or her acts. Although
a finding of mental retardation is an absolute bar to imposition of the death
Brown had to explain that to the families
waiting to go into court.
"I met with [the victims
families] as a group in my conference room and I had hoped that that day [there would be
closure] but because of the last minute claim [of retardation] I had to explain to them
what the law said and what the claim meant."
Once in court, "I asked for and
received a 60-day extension and we got a tremendous amount of work done in that
His office retained one of the
countrys leading criminal psychologist, Daniel A. Martell who had testified in the
trials of killers whose names made national headlines, like the Zodiac killer. Brown noted
that Martell has been called to testify "against the claim of retardation" in
several national cases.
Interviews with Godineaux, his employers
and his family, reviews of his intelligence tests, his criminal records, his police
department case files, police officers who had dealt with him in the past, board of
education members and 200 pages of school records all had to be done. "His I.Q. was
found to be within the lowest one percent of the population."
When all of this intensive
research was done, it came down to a court date of Jan. 22 and time alone before court
with the families. Brown recalled, "I met with all the families. There must have been
60 people in the conference room. I explained why the death penalty could not be sought
and that Godineaux would plead guilty [and what that would mean]. I tried to enlighten
them, I comforted them as much as I could and emotions ran high," with some
understanding the laws restriction and others being "very outspoken"
against the law.
In court, Brown reports that his defense attorney said that
he was "remorseful and wanted to spare his family and the family of his victims
Their Day In Court
By LIZ GOFF
Craig Godineaux plead guilty on Jan. 22 to working in concert with
co-defendant John Taylor to herd seven Wendys employees into a basement freezer and
shoot them execution-style. Then he described in detail the crime, knowing that his day in
court would ultimately mean the start of his life in a high-security prison.
Although Queens District Attorney will not be seeking a death penalty
sentence in Godineauxs case because he has been found to be mentally retarded, trial
proceedings will go forward for John Taylor who will face the death penalty if convicted.
But Godineaux was clear in his discription of the May killings at a
Flushing Wendys when he spoke this week. He told Supreme Court Justice Stephen
Fisher and the packed courtroom that he and suspect Taylor plotted the robbery and
murders, explaining how the victims pleaded for their lives as they were bound and gagged
them one by one.
Godineaux said he shot five of the victims point blank in the back of
the head, killing four and critically wounding one.
He was indicted by a Queens grand jury last summer of 47 counts of
first- and second-degree murder, assault and other charges. Many of the victims
family members fled this weeks court proceedings as Godineaux described the murders.
They entered the Kew Gardens courtroom in tears, and rushed to the hallway outside when
their sobbing began to distract the court.
Following Godineauxs designation as mentally retarded, he has
plead guilty and will be given five life sentences without parole. He is also now able to
testify against Taylor when Taylor goes on trial in the boroughs third Death Penalty
case since the statute was reinstated in 1995.
"He played the system," said Sergio Nazario, brother of
victim Ramon Nazario.
Godineaux is scheduled for sentencing on Feb. 27. Taylor is due back in court on March
21 for an additional pre-trial hearing.
By LIZ GOFF
Benjamin Nazario, brother of the massacre victim Ramon Nazario, told
the Tribune that District Attorney Richard Brown seemed genuinely upset when he met
with the victims families prior to the Jan. 21 court hearing.
"He brought us together to help us understand why and how this
could happen," Nazario said. "How he could escape the death penalty. He told us
it doesnt matter how severe or slight, mentally retarded people do not qualify under
the law for a death sentence."
But Benjamin wanted to know, "Who has to feed this guy for the
rest of his life? We will. Our brother didnt have a chance to plea."
He described his brother Ramon as a man who "loved life, loved to
laugh and loved to dance.
"He would stop anything he was doing to help another person,"
he said. "He was always optimistic and tried to help people get over the things that
bothered them. He was always smiling. Right now, hes probably above us, wondering
why were still grieving so hard.
"Hes probably dancing in heaven," Benjamin said.
By NICK BUGLIONE
If John Taylor is convicted and sentenced with capital punishment,
hell become the seventh New Yorker and the first Queens prisoner on death row since
Governor George Pataki reenacted the death penalty in September 1995.
The first scheduled to receive the final punishment is Darrel Harris,
convicted in 1998 for the shooting of three inside a Brooklyn club. He now resides with
the other six in Units for Condemned Persons (UCP) on New York States death row in
the Clinton Correctional Facility, according to Linda Foglia, spokesperson for the
Department of Correctional Services.
The last execution in New York State took place on Aug. 15, 1963, when
Eddie Lee Mays was electrocuted at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility.
And if Darrel Harris time comes to join Eddie Lee Mays in the
history of New York, he will be transferred to the Green Haven Correctional Facility,
located just 95 miles south of the state capitol. Once there, he would be strapped into
what is called "the couch" and executed by lethal injection of three chemicals
into his body.
The first chemical, sodium thiopental, induces a deep sleep. The next,
pancuronium bromide, acts as a muscle relaxant and ceases respiration. The last, potassium
chloride, stops the heart.
However, there is currently no scheduled date for Harris to make that
trip, as dealth penalty appeals often take years and even decades.
The New York City Councils Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services held a
hearing this week on a U.S. bill that would place a temporary moratorium on the death
penalty throughout the nation. Councilman Bill Perkins has introduced a resolution in
support of the bill, which, if it became law, would assure that persons "able to
prove their innocence are not executed."