Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania

Editorials in Major Death Penalty States Call for Its Abolition

Recent editorials from leading newspapers in three of the largest death row states critique flaws in the death penalty and call for its abolition. The Sacramento Bee quoted federal district court judge Cormac Carney's recent ruling finding California's death penalty unconstitutional because executions are so rare that they "serve no retributive or deterrent purpose." The Bee called the state's capital punishment system "an abject failure" and said, "[t]he death penalty has not worked, and never will." In the wake of the exoneration of Alfred Brown from Texas' death row, the Dallas Morning News said, "Brown’s release underscores the unacceptably high potential for killing innocent people despite clear flaws in the prosecutorial system." That editorial concluded,"The criminal justice system is too riddled with imperfections to merit reliance on a sentence that cannot be revisited or reversed once it’s carried out. Not when life without parole is an alternative." In Pennsylvania, The Harrisburg Patriot-News said, "The state should not be in the business of killing people." It urged Gov. Tom Wolf to go beyond the moratorium he imposed on the death penalty earlier this year and "seek an end to the practice entirely." Citing the rarity of executions in Pennsylvania and the difficulties in obtaining lethal injection drugs, the editorial said, "Justice can be served through imprisoning a murderer for the rest of his or her life. Vengeance against the accused is not justice."

Sentence Reversal, Exoneration, and Natural Death More Likely Than Execution For Pennsylvania Death Row Inmates

(Click on image to enlarge). According to Bureau of Justice Statistics, Pennsylvania is less likely to execute a death row inmate than any other state that has carried out any executions.  A Reading Eagle analysis of BJS data from 1973 through 2013 shows that the Commonwealth has executed fewer than 1% of all death-sentenced defendants since 1973, with execution the least likely of 5 possible outcomes for people sentenced to die. Nationally, 16% of those sentenced to death have been executed. The most likely outcome for defendants sentenced to death in Pennsylvania is that their conviction or death sentence will be reversed, as is also the case nationally. However, in Pennsylvania exoneration and death by natural causes or suicide are also more common than execution. Since 1994, when death sentences peaked in Pennsylvania, the average number of removals from death row per year has doubled. The Reading Eagle reports that homicides across the state fell to a ten-year low in 2013, a period in which Pennsylvania carried out no executions. Three years ago, the Pennsylvania state legislature ordered a task force to study the state's problems in applying capital punishment, including costs, fairness in sentencing, and quality of representation. That report is expected later this year. Governor Tom Wolf has halted all executions in the state at least until the report is issued and problems are addressed.  Recent polls indicate that a majority of Pennsylvanian's now favor some form of a life sentence over the death penalty.

PUBLIC OPINION: Majority of Pennsylvanians Prefer Life Sentences, Support Moratorium on Death Penalty

According to a new poll by Public Policy Polling, a majority of Pennsylvanians find some form of a life sentence to be preferable to the death penalty, and more support the death penalty moratorium imposed by Governor Tom Wolf than oppose it. When asked what sentence they preferred for people convicted of murder, 54% of respondents selected some form of life sentence, while 42% preferred the death penalty. 50% were in favor of the Commonwealth's death penalty moratorium, including 29% who say they "strongly support" it. 44% said they opposed the moratorium. The poll, which was commissioned by Dr. Eric Ling, a criminal justice professor at York College, also asked respondents whether they thought the death penalty or life without parole was more expensive. 70% erroneously believed that life without parole was the more expensive punishment. Dr. Ling said, “This poll suggests that there is a really significant opportunity to explain to voters why the death penalty costs so much more than a sentence of life in prison without parole. Pennsylvania has spent $350 million on the death penalty over the past few decades while carrying out just three executions. Clearly, more information about how much the state is really spending on the death penalty and what taxpayers are getting in return would be helpful. This is the type of information the Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment should be able to shed some light on when they issue their report.” (Click image to enlarge.)

NEW VOICES: Murder Victim's Widow Supports Clemency for Husband's Killer

Mamie Norwood, whose husband, Amos, was killed by Pennsylvania death row inmate Terry Williams (pictured), recently wrote a letter to two state officials asking them to, "stop trying to execute Terry Williams." Norwood's letter was addressed to Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams and State Representative Mike Vereb, who oppose the death penalty moratorium imposed by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf. Vereb recently introduced a legislative resolution stating that the moratorium "exhibits astounding disregard for the additional and unnecessary heartache he has now caused to the family and loved ones of Terrance Williams' victims." Norwood said, "I have forgiven Terry Williams and I don't want him executed and I have said this many times...[Y]ou have never spoken to me and you do not speak for me." In 2012, Norwood joined dozens of child advocates, former prosecutors and judges, mental health professionals, and five of Williams' jurors in calling for clemency. She concluded her recent letter by saying, "I am asking that you please stop trying to execute Terry Williams. And please don't use me for your own political gain or to get your name in the news. You should be truly ashamed of yourselves." Read the full text of Mamie Norwood's letter here. UPDATE: Family members of other victims have also publicly responded to statements by other Pennsylvania prosecutors in opposition to Governor Wolf’s moratorium that falsely suggested that they supported seeking the death penalty for their family member’s murder.

NEW VOICES: Former Police Chief Says Pennsylvania's Death Penalty Is "Broken"

Terence Inch, a former police commissioner in Hellam Township, Pennsylvania, recently wrote in support of Gov. Tom Wolf's moratorium on executions and pointed to the mistakes that can happen in high-profile crimes: "In the aftermath of a brutal homicide, particularly one involving multiple victims or children, there is enormous pressure on law enforcement to solve the case and to solve it quickly...In the rush to solve these high profile cases it is easy to make mistakes, or to ignore evidence that points away from the 'person of interest.'" He pointed to the numerous exonerations of death row inmates, including six in Pennsylvania, as evidence of the risks in capital prosecutions: "Mistakes happen too often, as evidenced by the fact that 150 men and women in the United States have been convicted and sent to death row - only to be released when conclusive evidence of their wrongful conviction emerged." He also noted the high cost of capital punishment in the state: "Pennsylvania has spent upwards of $350 million dollars on a death penalty system that has produced just three executions since 1999. All three of those executions involved men who voluntarily gave up their appeals. The system is obviously broken."

Pennsylvania Governor Announces Moratorium on Executions

On February 13 Governor Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania announced a moratorium on all executions in the state. He said no executions will take place at least until he has "received and reviewed the forthcoming report of the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Commission on Capital Punishment, established under Senate Resolution 6 of 2011, and there is an opportunity to address all concerns satisfactorily." The legislature commissioned the report in 2011. In his statement, Governor Wolf said, "This moratorium is in no way an expression of sympathy for the guilty on death row, all of whom have been convicted of committing heinous crimes. This decision is based on a flawed system that has been proven to be an endless cycle of court proceedings as well as ineffective, unjust, and expensive. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty, 150 people have been exonerated from death row nationwide, including six men in Pennsylvania." Terrance Williams, whose execution was scheduled for March 4, has been granted a reprieve. Governor Wolf joins the governors of Oregon, Washington, and Colorado in placing a hold on executions because of concerns about the death penalty system. In addition, 18 states have abolished the death penalty.

RESOURCES: New Series Examines Pennsylvania Death Penalty

The Patriot-News in Pennsylvania is running a series of articles examining the state's death penalty in anticipation of a comprehensive report on the death penalty commissioned by the state legislature. Pennsylvania has not carried out an execution since 1999, and all three of its executions in the modern era were inmates who waived their appeals. Incoming Governor Tom Wolf has said he may hold off on allowing executions until the state addresses questions of fairness in the application of the death penalty. Incoming state Supreme Court Justice Thomas Saylor recently raised concerns about defense funding, saying, "If we want the death penalty, the state must provide resources to provide competent defense counsel for indigent defendants. That's the disconnect we have right now." State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, who sponsored the resolution calling for a study of the death penalty, called the study "historic," saying, "We shouldn't run away from facts regardless of what our opinions are." Sen. Daylin Leach intends to re-introduce a bill to repeal the death penalty this year.

Pennsylvania Death Penalty Costs Estimated at $350 Million

In a series of articles analyzing Pennsylvania's death penalty, the Reading Eagle found that taxpayers have spent over $350 million on the death penalty over a period in which the state has carried out just three executions, all of inmates who dropped their appeals. Using data from a Maryland cost study, which concluded that death penalty cases cost $1.9 million more than similar cases in which the death penalty was not sought, the newspaper estimated that the cases of the 185 people on Pennsylvania's death row cost $351.5 million. The paper said the estimate was conservative because it did not include cases that were overturned, or cases where the prosecutor sought the death penalty but the jury returned another sentence. Pennsylvania legislators commissioned a cost study in 2011, but the report has not been issued. Senator Daylin Leach, one of the legislators who called for the state report, said he will reintroduce a bill to repeal the death penalty. Even supporters of the death penalty agreed that the costs are a problem: "Definitely, the death penalty extremely strains our resources," said Berks County District Attorney John Adams. Judge Thomas Parisi, also of Berks County, said he believed there was an astronomical cost difference between the average death penalty case and a life-sentence case.

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