Today’s news:

Doubt rise over Wendy’s murderer’s death sentence

Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said it was too soon to tell whether or not the higher court ruling was going to reverse Taylor's sentence.

Taylor was sentenced to death in 2003 for murdering two employees at a Wendy's restaurant on Main Street in Flushing and ordering a mentally retarded accomplice, Craig Godineaux, to shoot five other people in the basement of the chain where Taylor once worked. Only two of the seven victims survived the May 2000 bloodbath.

Taylor is the only Queens County man facing death by lethal injection. Four men in the state have been handed the death penalty. Capital punishment was reinstated in New York in 1995, after Gov. George Pataki took office.

Now Taylor's sentence, which is in the process of appeals, may be up for reconsideration.

When the court was ruling in the appeal of Stephen LaValle, a convicted rapist and murderer who attacked and killed a jogger on Long Island, questions were raised over a law that requires judges to tell juries that if they cannot reach a unanimous decision between life without parole or a death sentence, the judge will automatically impose a 20- to 25-year sentence with the possibility of parole.

The appeals court questioned the validity of this law based on the fact that it might urge jurors to choose the death sentence in order to prevent the judge from imposing a sentence with the possibility of parole, thereby potentially freeing a violent criminal.

As a result, the appeals court ruled that the instruction statute was unconstitutional, calling into question the death sentences of the four men on death row in the state.

Brown believes Taylor's sentence, handed down by Judge Steven Fisher in State Supreme Court in Kew Gardens, was not unfairly influenced by the instruction statute because Fisher told the jurors that Taylor would receive a sentence of 175 years to life if they did not reach a unanimous decision between life without parole or death.

"The applicability of the Court of Appeals decision to the Wendy's case is still to be decided," Brown said. "I am not prepared to draw any conclusion at this juncture regarding the eventual outcome of the appeal currently pending in the Taylor case."

Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing), who represents the downtown Flushing neighborhood where the crime occurred, said he thought the reversal of the death penalty was indicative of a national shift of opinions about capital punishment.

"Here in New York, we should be looking carefully at whether the death penalty statutes are actually being carried out in the most fair and equitable manner," Liu said. "I wouldn't blame it on the judges. The law itself needs to be looked at carefully."

Brown said the victims' families have been notified and that they are dealing with the implications of the court's ruling.

"The families have been advised of the decision and are struggling to reconcile the complexities of the law with their expectation that justice be done."

Reach reporter Cynthia Koons by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 141.

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