Pataki replaces prosecutor in Bronx officer's murder District attorney reluctant to seek the death penalty


NEW YORK -- Insistent that the three men accused of killing a police officer last week should face the death penalty, Gov. George E. Pataki took the case away yesterday from the Bronx district attorney who refused to quickly declare whether he would seek death sentences.

The move by Mr. Pataki brought the promise of a legal challenge from the rejected prosecutor, Robert T. Johnson.

"We cannot have different standards and different laws in different parts of this state," Mr. Pataki said. "We cannot have the death penalty in New York state, except for the Bronx."

Mr. Pataki, who in 1994 campaigned heavily on a promise to return capital punishment to New York, had given Mr. Johnson a deadline of 1 p.m. Wednesday to say whether he would seek the death penalty for the defendants, all of whom have long criminal records.

Mr. Johnson, a longtime opponent of the death penalty, stirred passions after the law was reinstituted last year, saying he had no plans to use the law in the Bronx.

One reason, he said, was that he once helped to convict an innocent man of murder.

After New York police Officer Kevin Gillespie was killed March 14 in a shootout with three suspected carjackers, Mr. Pataki called on Mr. Johnson to seek the death penalty. Mr. Johnson said that he would review the case before deciding, but Mr. Pataki was unhappy with that position.

Ignoring the 120-day period established by the law for prosecutors to decide whether to seek the death penalty, Mr. Pataki set the Wednesday deadline, six days after the shooting.

Mr. Johnson balked, and Mr. Pataki yesterday assigned state Attorney General Dennis C. Vacco, a death penalty proponent, to the case.

Mr. Johnson, after being removed, said: "The governor and his people want the answers they want when they want them."

Promising to make the prosecution of the suspects the focus of his efforts, Mr. Johnson has agreed to work with the attorney general's office on the matter.

"That prosecution must not suffer, no matter who the prosecutor is," he said.

Mr. Johnson said yesterday that he had never taken a position of absolute prohibition against the death penalty, though he was willing to list his concerns. He cited a lack of deterrence in states where it exists, and, in the case of mistakes, its irreversibility.

By mid-afternoon the issue had moved to the street.

The local branch of the NAACP held a rally on the courthouse steps to show support for Johnson. The local bar association also took his side. But the police officers checking bags at the courthouse door had a different view.

"Tell him to fry them," said one.

The dead officer's brother said Johnson had no right to deny the will of the people and not seek the death penalty. And former mayor Ed Koch said Johnson was allowing his personal bias to cloud his judgment.

Pub Date: 3/22/96

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