BY TAMARA HARTMAN
Queens District Attorney Richard Brown faced the families of the men and women who were shot in the head in Wendy’s 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.”
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 examiner’s report. It depends on the nature of the case, but at some point when the Committee begins deliberations, I step out. I don’t 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 Wendy’s]. I saw with my own eyes exactly what had transpired.”
By state law, Brown has 120 days from the date of the defendant’s arainment on the indictment to make his decision. The Wendy’s killings happened on May 24, and so those 120 days expired on Nov. 20.
Evidence Of Retardation
On the day of Brown’s Nov. 20 deadline for a decision, he was approached by the defense council with a psychologist’s 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 penalty.”
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 time.”
His office retained one of the country’s 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.”
This Week In Court
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 law’s 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 further anguish.”
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 Wendy’s 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 Godineaux’s 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 Wendy’s 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 week’s 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 Godineaux’s 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 borough’s 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.
Angry & Mourning: A Brother Tells His Story
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 doesn’t 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 didn’t 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, he’s probably above us, wondering why we’re still grieving so hard.
“He’s probably dancing in heaven,” Benjamin said.
Six Waiting For Final Punishment
BY NICK BUGLIONE
If John Taylor is convicted and sentenced with capital punishment, he’ll 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 State’s 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 Council’s 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.”