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.)

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.