Here’s how the death penalty works — or, to be more accurate, doesn’t work — in New York. It’s usually not about the killer, but rather the victim. The case against one Vincent Basciano in Federal District Court in Brooklyn may be no exception.
Clyde Haberman offers his take on the news.
Last week, a jury found Mr. Basciano guilty of having ordered a gangland killing in his pursuit of upward mobility within the Bonanno crime family. Now it must decide if he should be put to death. The alternative is to condemn him to life in prison, on top of the life sentence he is already serving for a different murder. One way or another, Mr. Basciano — Vinny Gorgeous, to his old mob mates — is going nowhere you want to be.
The death penalty phase shifted into high gear on Wednesday with testimony from Joseph C. Massino, a longtime head of the Bonanno family, who made history of a sort in April when he became the first official mob boss to testify against an old confrere.
Once again, the contrasts between this star government witness and the defendant were striking. There sat Mr. Basciano, trim and impeccably tailored, his meticulous haircut suggesting that prison barbers are more skillful than any of us may have thought. Mr. Massino, on the other hand, was exceedingly peccable, dressed as if he were headed to the gym. Only he didn’t look like someone who had ever seen a salad bar, let alone the inside of a health club.
His testimony — filled with requisite forget-about-its and characters with names like Anthony Stutters and Michael Nose — was a litany of occasions when Mr. Basciano came to him seeking permission to kill someone. Each time, Mr. Massino testified, he empathically told Mr. Basciano no. Once, the intended victim was a woman. “I thought he was crazy,” Mr. Massino said. “Kill her for what?”
The prosecutors’ goal was clearly to portray Mr. Basciano as a mad dog, ready to pounce on anyone — so far over the top that he even proposed killing a federal prosecutor who had angered him. That, Mr. Massino said, he would in no way permit. Eventually, he said, Mr. Basciano agreed that he should, yes, “forget about it.”
This part of the testimony may be crucial.
Most of those said to have been on Mr. Basciano’s hit parade were fellow gangsters. The history of capital cases in New York strongly suggests that if you murder someone who is every bit as repugnant as you are — a fellow mobster or drug dealer or gang member — you may go to prison till the day after forever but you are unlikely to find yourself strapped to a table with a needle in your arm. Juries here have been loath to impose a death sentence on a defendant for killing someone at least as unsavory as he is.
But a prosecutor? That’s a different ball game. Not surprisingly, Mr. Basciano’s lawyers sought to cast Mr. Massino as a man who spun fables to the government in the hope of getting a better deal for himself while he serves a life sentence of his own.
Trying to predict what a jury might do is a fool’s errand. Bear in mind, though, that no inmate in New York has been executed in a federal case since 1954, and no one in a state case since 1963.
In recent years, only one federal defendant in this state has been condemned to die. That was Ronell Wilson, who mercilessly killed two undercover police detectives in 2003. But even he will now get to live. Early last summer, appellate judges overturned his death sentence on the grounds that prosecutors had violated his constitutional rights.
All it takes to spare a defendant the needle is one dissenting juror. On Wednesday, Mr. Brasciano, 51, didn’t look like someone steeling himself for an early end.
For full local Times coverage, including a new temporary home for Dominique Strauss-Kahn and a new team of prosecutors to try him, the surprisingly complicated pronunciation of Van Wyck, an officer’s testimony during a drunken-driving trial that displays the rationale behind ticket-fixing, and a wanted psychic who was captured in Mystic, Conn., see the N.Y./Region section.
Here’s what City Room is reading in other papers and blogs this morning.
An analysis by the National Center for Education Statistics indicates that while New York residents pay substantially more than people in other states for education, the performance of the New York public schools is still below the national average. [New York Post]
The prime contractor for CityTime, New York City’s severely over-budget automated payroll system, fired their project manager on the ground that he violated policy when reporting his own hours. [Wall Street Journal]
The Cobble Hill Association examined the past, present and future of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. [Brooklyn Daily Eagle]
Work on Harold Interlocking, a system of tracks, signals and switches that will facilitate travel at the Sunnyside Rail Yards, should start next year with federal financing. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman, Jay H. Walder, also attributed current levels of subway disruption to serious repairs throughout the system. [Daily News]
Opponents of concerts planned for Asser Levy Park have managed to have the shows banned based on a law that prohibits amplified sound within 500 feet of a house of worship. [Gowanus Lounge]
Twenty-eight people, including a bank worker, were indicted on charges that they forged $150,000 in checks. [Daily News]
A would-be baker who acted as a spiritual leader and called himself “the pastor” appears to have played a significant role in the recent death of an 8-year-old girl in Irvington, N.J. [Star-Ledger]
A New York painter, John Perry, is on the 18th day of a hunger strike to protest a New Yorker article from August 2010 about a dispute between Mr. Perry and the actor and artist John Lurie. Mr. Perry says he will stop when the magazine prints a retraction. [New York Post]
A study by two Columbia economists indicates that New York City groceries are actually less expensive than those in some other parts of the country. [Wall Street Journal]
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver rejected the plans of the Senate majority leader, Dean G. Skelos, to extend existing rent laws. [Daily Politics]
A guide to inexpensive Summer fun on Governors Island. [Brokelyn]