Kaylee Goncalves was one of four college students senselessly murdered in Idaho last November, a savage crime that shocked the nation. Her father has advocated for the state’s death penalty for her killer. “He chose over and over to end people’s lives and that has to be accounted for,” Steve Goncalves said.
Simultaneously, closer to home, New York has been the focus of attention for the 13-year manhunt, capture, and looming trial of a suspect in a series of Long Island killings. Rex Heuermann was arrested last July and eventually charged with the murder of four women, whose bodies were found along a secluded section of the South Shore area known as Gilgo Beach. Investigators are determining whether he will be charged in the death of other victims discovered in the vicinity.
Yet, despite the depravity that ended the lives of their loved ones, family members of the victims of this serial killer don’t have the same option for a final resolution as Goncalves. Why doesn’t New York State have the death penalty?
The saga behind the answer to that legal question is based, in large part, on a brutal murder that took place just 39 miles from Gilgo Beach and a quarter century before most of us had ever heard of Rex Heuermann.
Thirty minutes after Cynthia Quinn was supposed to have arrived back at her home in Suffolk County, her husband Brian was already concerned. The 32-year-old mother of two had gone for an early-morning jog in the Long Island hamlet of Yaphank, and it wasn’t like her to let the routine of running three to five miles before sunrise interfere with the activities that often filled the couple’s calendar.
Saturday, May 31, 1997, was supposed to be an ordinary day: Brian would be working as a carpenter and Cynthia had a track meet at Patchogue–Medford High School, where she was a coach and art teacher.
But she was late. Brian drove his wife’s usual run route with their children—Sean, six months old, and Meghan, age two. Unable to locate her, he recruited some volunteers from the local fire company in which he served to help in the search. Police officers soon joined; the family’s driveway became a make-shift command center. Shortly after noon, five hours after she had been missing, two Yaphank firefighters discovered Cynthia lifeless in a wooded area off of Mill Road, a main thoroughfare of the area. She had been beaten and raped, and she had been stabbed 73 times with a screwdriver-like weapon.
Evidence pointing to a suspect was discovered immediately. Police connected a wallet containing a woman’s identification card found near Cynthia’s body with a robbery from earlier that morning in the neighboring town of Coram. Stephen S. LaValle, 30, had spent most of the last decade in prison on various charges of burglary and the sexual assault and robbery of a young woman. Investigators soon discovered that he had been paroled just 93 days before the morning of the attack.
LaValle was arrested when he reported to his parole officer two days after Quinn was killed. He eventually confessed to both crimes. He was charged with first-degree murder and first-degree rape and indicted three days after his confession by a grand jury in First District Suffolk County Court in Central Islip. Prosecutors sought a death sentence for LaValle.
New York’s death penalty had only recently been reinstated into law. While campaigning to be the state’s chief executive in 1994, George Pataki promised to bring back the ultimate punishment for the most heinous offenders after nearly 20 years of resistance from his gubernatorial predecessors. The recently inaugurated Pataki signed the bill into law on March 7, 1995, using the pens of two slain NYPD officers, Sean McDonald and Raymond Cannon.
The trial of Stephen LaValle began in June 1999. Prosecutors presented 41 witnesses and 180 exhibits, including evidence linking the defendant’s DNA with Cynthia Quinn’s body and clothing. The defense did not call any witnesses, and the jury convicted LaValle after two days of deliberation. On August 6, 1999, the jury sentenced LaValle to death. He was moved to Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora.
LaValle’s lawyers appealed the verdict and the sentence to the New York State Court of Appeals on various claims, including a challenge to the constitutionality of Section 10 of the 1995 death penalty statute. “The court must instruct the jury that in the event the jury fails to reach unanimous agreement with respect to the sentence,” it read, “the court will sentence the defendant to a term of imprisonment with a minimum between twenty to twenty-five years and a maximum term of life.” In 2004, in a 4-3 ruling, the court ruled that the jury instruction in Section 10 was unconstitutional—and with it, the death penalty law itself. “[I]t is necessarily our responsibility to strike down the deadlock instruction,” the decision read, “because it creates the substantial risk of coercing jurors into sentencing a defendant to death in violation of our Due Process clause” in Article I, Section 1 of the New York State Constitution.
Section 10 “was unique among state death penalty statutes,” wrote Deborah L. Heller in a 2008 Pace Law Review article. “The LaValle court felt that the deadlock instruction encouraged the jury to sentence the defendant to death because of their fears that the defendant may be released on parole and once again pose a danger to the general population.” The result: LaValle’s conviction was upheld, but his death penalty sentence was vacated. The appellate court had abolished capital punishment in New York State not by prohibiting the penalty itself but by outlawing a single phrase mandated in the legislation’s jury instruction.
The convicted murderer was then resentenced to life imprisonment without parole. “There are no words to fix the pain or anything that can repair the damage he’s done,” said William Sims, Cynthia’s father, at the hearing in Riverhead Criminal Court. “Why should Stephen LaValle be allowed to live when our daughter was not?” LaValle remains in custody at Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg.
New York’s death penalty law wasn’t repealed by elected lawmakers or condemned by a groundswell of citizen-led opposition. Its demise can instead be marked by a bare-majority judicial decree in 2004 and the inaction of our state lawmakers ever since. Some still celebrate the outcome of People of New York v. LaValle—including LaValle himself. The alleged Gilgo Beach killer, Rex Heuermann, also has cause to be grateful. He sits in a jail cell in the same county where Cynthia Quinn was murdered, awaiting trial—but protected from a death sentence, even if convicted.
Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images