Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania

EDITORIALS: Newspapers Stress Findings from DPIC's 2015 Year End Report

Several newspapers across the country featured themes from DPIC's 2015 Year End Report in editorials and opinion pieces at the end of December:

"Once broadly accepted, capital punishment is increasingly a fringe practice. A handful of states conduct nearly all executions. Four — Texas, Missouri, Georgia and Florida — carried out 93 percent of them in 2015. Sixty-three percent of new death sentences came from a mere 2 percent of U.S. counties, a group with a history of disproportionately using the death penalty.Bad policy encourages this sort of excess: Three states — Alabama, Delaware and Florida — do not require juries to be unanimous when recommending a death sentence. A quarter of new sentences came from split juries in these states."

"Not only did executions drop in 2015, but the number of people sentenced to death also hit an historic low, the center said. That could be due to a growing skepticism by jurors of a system susceptible to manipulation through coerced testimony or other misconduct...— or there could be some other reason for a decline in convictions on capital punishment charges...What is clear is that there's no correcting an execution if later evidence shows the prosecution was wrong...Abolition is the direction of the future, and the U.S. should join."

"[T]he fact that new death sentences were at an all-time low in Texas this year is reason to applaud...Texas’ declines mirror numbers across the nation. According to the Death Penalty Information Center’s year-end report, death sentences dropped 33 percent from 2014, with 49 people being sentenced to death this year. Just six states carried out executions, the fewest since 1998...Confidence in the system’s integrity is waning. It should only follow that support for the death penalty follows suit."
 
 
"In 2015, in fact, otherwise proudly liberal California led the nation in death sentences with 14, even as the national number dropped to 49, the fewest since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Of California’s death sentences, eight were in Riverside County (including five of the eight Latinos sentenced to death nationwide), plus three in Los Angeles and one in Orange...If we’re going to have the death penalty, shouldn’t it be at least somewhat consistent across the state?"

"As Florida becomes more isolated in its administration of the death penalty, the state is getting deserved scrutiny for problems with the practice. A year-end report from the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center found just three states — Alabama, California and Florida — accounted for more than half of the nation’s new death sentences in 2015. More than a quarter of this year’s death sentences were imposed by Florida and Alabama after non-unanimous jury recommendations of death — a practice allowed in just those two states and Delaware. ...As Florida officials have pushed to speed up the pace of executions, the Death Penalty Information Center found the rest of the country is heading in the opposite direction. A dozen states haven’t executed anyone in at least nine years, while 18 states and the District of Columbia have outlawed the death penalty altogether. ... As most other states move away from the death penalty, it is long past time for Florida to follow their lead."

"A Reading Eagle investigation in October found nearly one in five Pennsylvania inmates sentenced to death the past decade were represented by attorneys disciplined for professional misconduct at some point in their careers. And the majority of these disciplined attorneys had been found by Pennsylvania courts to be ineffective in at least one capital case. More than 150 inmates sentenced to death in the U.S. have been exonerated since 1973, according to data compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. Sooner or later an innocent person will be executed, if it hasn't happened already...It is time to end the death penalty in Pennsylvania." (This editorial announced the end of the Eagle's prior position supporting the death penalty under limited circumstances.)

NEW VOICES: Why Prosecutors in Texas, Pennsylvania Are Seeking Death Penalty Less Often

Prosecutors across the country are seeking the death penalty less frequently and in recent interviews two district attorneys, one from Texas and one from Pennsylvania, have given some of their reasons why. Randall County, Texas District Attorney James Farren (pictured) told KFDA-TV in Amarillo that his experience handling one particularly lengthy and costly capital case has changed how he will make decisions in future cases that are eligible for the death penalty. He said that his office has spent, "conservatively...at least $400,000" on the prosecution of Brittany Holberg, who has been on death row since 1998. Farren said the costs are too high for taxpayers and "I do not want to subject them to this kind of thing any longer." While he said he still supports the death penalty, Farren predicted that, in the near future, the U.S. Supreme Court "likely will decide society has evolved to the point that it’s no longer appropriate." In an interview with the Reading EagleJohn T. Adams, District Attorney of Berks County, Pennsylvania, says that he rarely seeks the death penalty and is "just as happy with a life sentence as I am a death sentence." If defendantants are sentenced to life without parole, Adams says, "[t]hey will not be a threat to our community ever again. And frankly, community safety is the utmost of my concerns." Adams adds, "I think you will find throughout Pennsylvania that we are seeking [the death penalty] less and less, and I think that's good."

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Unanimously Upholds Governor's Moratorium on Executions

In a unanimous decision issued December 21, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld Gov. Tom Wolf's (pictured) imposition of a moratorium on executions while he awaits the results of a legislative commission's report on Pennsylvania's death penalty. On February 13, 2015, Wolf issued a temporary reprieve to Terrance Williams and announced that he would put all executions on hold. At that time, he said that Pennsylvania's "capital punishment system has significant and widely recognized defects" and was "ineffective, unjust, and expensive." Prosecutors challenged the governor's authority to issue reprieves of indefinite duration that were based upon systemic concerns. The Court disagreed. Writing for the Court, Justice Max Baer said, "at the time the reprieve power was adopted in the 1790 Constitution, the Governor's authority to issue a reprieve was not understood as being limited to granting reprieves with a specific end date or for a purpose relating only to the prisoner's unique circumstances, but rather encompassed any temporary postponement of sentence." Williams' case is also pending before the U.S. Supreme Court on a separate issue - whether former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille should have recused himself from hearing the appeal of a lower court decision reversing Williams' death sentence because of prosecutorial misconduct by the Philadelphia District Attorney's office while Castille was District Attorney. Castille had personally authorized Williams' prosecution in his role as D.A. and had campaigned for judge based upon his record of having sent more than 40 defendants to death row. The state appeals court overturned the trial court's decision and reinstated Williams' death sentence. Two judicial groups and six legal organizations, including the American Bar Association and the American Academy of Appellate Lawyers, recently filed amicus briefs supporting Williams' position that Castille should have recused himself and that his participation tainted the court's decision to return Williams to death row.

Sexually Abused Teen Who Killed His Abuser Faces Execution Despite Inadequate Defense, Judge's Conflict of Interest

Terry Williams was barely 18 when he killed Amos Norwood, a man who had been sexually abusing him since Williams was 13. A recent article in Mother Jones discusses how the Philadelphia District Attorney's office - which championed the cause of sexual abuse victims during landmark prosecutions of several clergy abuse cases - is aggressively seeking to execute Williams, employing the very stereotypes about abuse victims it publicly rejected in the clergy trials. At the time of those trials, D.A. Seth Williams said "[a]s we have learned, it is extremely difficult for sexual abuse victims to admit that the assault happened, and then to actually report the abuse to authorities can be even harder for them." But in Terry Williams' case, the office has argued both that his silence discredits his claim of having been repeatedly sexually abused and that the killing was a product of  "gay-prostitute rage." Williams never met his court-appointed lawyer until the day before his trial and, not trusting the lawyer, did not reveal his history of sexual abuse. Philadelphia prosecutors knew that WIlliams had been sexually abused before and had evidence that Norwood had made sexual advances toward other young boys. Nevertheless, prosecutors removed references to Norwood's abusive proclivities from several witness statements before providing sanitized versions of those statements to Williams' defense. In a separate case, the same prosecutor, Andrea Foulkes, had tried Williams for the murder of Herbert Hamilton, who had paid Williams for sex when Williams was a teenager. In that trial, the jury acquitted Williams, who was 17 at the time of that killing, of first-degree murder, after hearing evidence of Hamilton's relationship with Williams and convicted him of the lesser charge of third-degree murder. Judge Teresa Sarmina wrote, "The third degree verdict in the Hamilton case, colored Ms. Foulkes' decisions when she prosecuted [Williams] for the murder of Amos Norwood." Despite her awareness of Norwood's sexual proclivities, Foulkes told the jury Williams had killed him "for no other reason but that a kind man offered him a ride home." Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille - the former Philadelphia D.A. - refused to recuse himself from WIlliams' appeal, even though Castille had personally authorized Williams' prosecution and, during his judicial election campaign, had trumpeted his record of sending 45 people to death row. Norwood's widow joined more than 350,000 people in supporting Williams' bid for clemency, but the pardons board's 3-2 recommendation for clemency fell short of the state's unanimity requirement. Terry Williams faced an execution date of March 4, 2015, but was granted a reprieve when Gov. Tom Wolf announced a moratorium on the death penalty in February. In October 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Williams' challenge to Castille's participation in his appeal.

Pennsylvania Death-Row Prisoners Disproportionately Represented at Trial by Attorneys with Disciplinary Problems

15.1% of capital defendants sentenced to death in Pennsylvania since 1980 were represented at trial by a lawyer who has been disciplined for professional misconduct, and that has risen to 18.2% in the past decade, according to an investigative report by The Reading Eagle. These rates of discipline were between 5 and 6 times higher than the 3% disciplinary rate for Pennsylvania lawyers as a whole over the past 30 years. The disciplinary issues have disproportionately affected minority defendants: 83% of the death-row prisoners who had been represented by lawyers with disciplinary violations were black or Latino. The Eagle's review of more than 300 capital cases also revealed that two thirds of the disciplined lawyers had been found to have provided ineffective representation in at least one case in which their clients had been sentenced to death. Ineffectiveness accounts for nearly 60% of capital case reversals in Pennsylvania and is the most common reason a conviction or death sentence is overturned. In 2004, Pennsylvania created Rule 801, which established minimum experience requirements for attorneys in capital cases. However, the rule contains no quality controls, does not mandate any performance evaluations, and does not set any baseline for attorney compensation. Marc Bookman, director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, said low pay for appointed capital attorneys is part of the problem. "Only the worst lawyers would consider taking these cases on a regular basis because you can't make a living doing it," he said. Pennsylvania is not alone in its high rates of misconduct for lawyers appointed to capital trials. In Texas, one in four death row inmates had been represented by attorneys who were disciplined for misconduct, and in Washington, the same was true of one in five. 

U.S. Supreme Court to Hear Pennsylvania Case Concerning Judicial Bias

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear Williams v. Pennsylvania, a case challenging former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille's participation in an appeal of a case that had been tried in Philadelphia while Castille was the city's district attorney. Terrance Williams (pictured) was convicted and sentenced to death in Philadelphia in 1984 for the murder of a man prosecutors had described to the jury as "a kind man [who had] offered [Williams] a ride home." Williams was 18 at the time of the murder. His death sentence was reversed days before his scheduled execution in 2012 because prosecutors under Castille's tenure had withheld information that the victim, a church deacon, had sexually abused teenagers he had met through his church and that the trial prosecutor knew that the victim had sexually abused Williams. In 2014, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reinstated Williams' death sentence. Williams' lawyers asked Castille to recuse himself from the case, saying he had "personally approved the decision to pursue capital punishment" against Williams, continued to head the office when it defended the death verdict on appeal, and, in his electoral campaign for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, had touted "the number of defendants he had 'sent' to death row, including [Williams]." Castille denied the motion for recusal and authored a concurring opinion that criticized Williams' lawyers and the judge who had ruled in Williams' favor.

Former Judge: Pennsylvania Moratorium is "Appropriate" and "Reasonable"

Robert Cindrich, a former U.S. District Judge and U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, recently wrote an op-ed for the Harrisburg Patriot-News calling Governor Tom Wolf's moratorium on executions in Pennsylvania "appropriate" and "reasonable." Expressing concerns about "multiple, serious problems with the death penalty" in Pennsylvania, Judge Cindrich says Governor Wolf "was absolutely correct" that no executions should take place until the Pennsylvania Advisory Committee and Task Force on Capital Punishment completes its study of the state's death penalty and makes recommendations for reform. In particular, Cindrich is "highly concerned about the fairness of [Pennsylvania's] capital punishment system." He points to "the reversals of most death sentences, the poor compensation of public defenders in capital cases, and the racial bias in Pennsylvania's imposition of death sentences" as areas all "in dire need of improvement." More than half of the 400 death sentences imposed in Pennsylvania have been reversed "due to serious flaws or misconduct at trial," he says, which indicates "that far too many individuals received unfair and unwarranted sentences of death."

Death Sentences Drop in Three High-Use Counties As Prosecutors Change

Changes in who is District Attorney have caused a dramatic decline in death sentences in 3 counties that historically have produced a disproportionate number of death sentences in the United States, according to a story from The Marshall Project. Harris County (Houston), Texas, Oklahoma County, Oklahoma, and Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania were all among the 2% of counties that accounted for 56% of inmates on death row as of 2013, but the resignations or retirements of their long-time District Attorneys have been followed by significant drops in the number of new death sentences. In Harris County, DA Johnny Holmes secured an average of 12 death sentences a year from 1992 to 2000. His immediate successor obtained about 6 death sentences a year, and DAs elected since 2008 have averaged about 1 death sentence per year. Similarly, Oklahoma County saw about 2.5 death sentences a year under long-time DA Robert Macy, but has handed down just 3 sentences since 2009. In both Harris and Oklahoma counties, exonerations shook public confidence in the justice system, also contributing to the drop in death sentences. An FBI review of an Oklahoma police chemist who worked closely with Macy uncovered deliberately falsified DNA tests and withheld evidence, which defense attorney Doug Parr said made people, "more skeptical of death penalty prosecutions." In Philadelphia, DA Lynne Abraham obtained an average of 9.5 death sentences per year in the 1990s. According to the article, the picture began to change in response to budget shortfalls and criticisms about racial disparities in death sentences. In 2009, Philadelphia elected a new DA, Seth Williams, who, the article says, promised to improve relations with minorities. In the last 5 years, Philadelphia has had only 3 death sentences. (Click image to enlarge.)

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