ARBITRARINESS: Pennsylvania's Costly and Broken Death Penalty System

The theory of the death penalty is that prosecutors select offenders who have committed aggravated murder and obtain death sentences for the most heinous offenders through a scrupulous trial with full due process. The reality in Pennsylvania is radically different. Hundreds of inmates have been sentenced to death, but of the cases that have completed the appeals process, 100% have been overturned, mostly because of errors in the conviction or sentencing stages. (Three inmates were executed, but they waived their appeals; the rest of those sentenced to death remain on death row, continuing their appeals.) Moreover, when these cases are submitted for re-trial, presumably with the errors corrected, almost all (95%) receive a sentence less than death (and some are freed completely). These statistics, collected by Robert Dunham, Adjunct Professor at Villanova Law School, reveal a capital-case selection process that is seriously flawed and a trial process that is rampant with error. From a cost perspective, this is extremely wasteful: every death sentence is a result of an expensive trial and appeal; nevertheless, almost all of these cases ultimately result in a life sentence after even more proceedings. Eleven percent (11%) of the cases requiring a re-sentencing were resolved as less than first-degree murder.

(R. Dunham, THE FIRST 100 RE-SENTENCINGS: SUBSEQUENT DISPOSITIONS OF PENNSYLVANIA CAPITAL CASES REVERSED IN POST-CONVICTION, Villanova Law School, Jan. 28, 2013).  See Arbitrariness, Costs, and Sentencing.