American Bar Association Report Urges Death Penalty Reforms in Pennsylvania

According to a new report from a team of investigators sponsored by the American Bar Association (ABA), flaws in Pennsylvania's death penalty system are so pervasive that the state risks executing an innocent person. "The problems found in this assessment strike at the very heart of Pennsylvania's justice system," stated ABA president-elect H. Thomas Wells, Jr. The five-member Pennsylvania assessment team that conducted the review urged a series of important death penalty reforms designed to improve capital defense representation and reduce the likelihood of false confessions, crime-lab errors, witness misidentification and racial disparities. In addition to the reform recommendations, the ABA called on Governor Ed Rendell to order a more comprehensive study of Pennsylvania's death penalty.

Among the report's key recommendations are the following:

  • Pennsylvania should ensure that it provides adequate opportunities for death row inmates to prove their innocence. The state should require the preservation of biological evidence for as long as the defendant remains incarcerated and should require crime labs and law enforcement agencies to be certified by nationally recognized certification organizations. It should also require audio or videotaping of all interrogations in potentially capital cases and implement lineup procedures that protect against incorrect eyewitness identifications.
  • Pennsylvania should ensure that all capital defendants and death row inmates who are poor receive competent lawyers. The assessment team found that the state fails to guarantee the appointment of two attorneys at all stages of capital cases, and that attorneys often are provided insufficient access to experts and investigators or to information in discovery. The panel also noted that the Pennsylvania lacks a statewide independent appointing authority responsible for training, selecting, and monitoring capital defense attorneys.
  • Pennsylvania should provide state funding for capital indigent defense services. The group found that the state currently has no funding for indigent defense services, but instead relies on county-funded systems. As a result, the quality of Pennsylvania's capital indigent defense system varies widely among counties and fails to afford uniform, quality representation to many capital defendants.
  • Pennsylvania should eliminate racial and geographic bias from its death penalty system. The assessment team found that Pennsylvania is "second only to Louisiana in the percentage of African Americans on death row" and that African American defendants in Philadelphia County were sentenced at a "significant higher rate" than similarly situated non-African American defendants. The review concluded that one-third of African American death row inmates in Philadelphia County would have received sentences of life imprisonment if they had not been African American.
  • Pennsylvania should collect and make available data on death-eligible cases. Without a statewide entity that collects data on all death-eligible cases in the state, Pennsylvania cannot ensure that its system ensures proportionality in charging or sentencing, or determine the extent of racial or geographic bias in its capital system.
  • Pennsylvania should ensure that all death-row inmates receive meaningful review in state post-conviction proceedings. State law imposes several restrictions on state post-conviction proceedings that seriously impede the adequate development and judicial consideration of a death row inmate's claims, including a 60-day time limitation for filing a successive post-conviction petition.
  • Pennsylvania should ensure that capital jurors understand their roles and responsibilities. The group revealed that the overwhelming majority of Pennsylvania capital jurors fail to understand their roles and responsibilities when deciding whether to impose a death sentence. More than 98% of these jurors failed to understand "at least some" portion of the jury instructions, and of those questioned, about 82% did not believe "that a life sentence really meant life in prison." The ABA urged the state to redraft its capital jury instructions with the objective of preventing common juror misconceptions and to provide a clearer understanding of the definition of life in prison without parole.

Pennsylvania has 228 people on death row and has carried out three executions since it reinstated the death penalty in 1978. Five people have been freed from death row on the basis of innocence.

The ABA is the nation's largest lawyers' association. It has released similar reviews in seven other states. Though the organization does not take an official position on the death penalty, in 1997 it called for a moratorium on executions until "fairness and accuracy - due process - are assured in death penalty cases."
(Philadelphia Inquirer, October 10, 2007, and the American Bar Association Pennsylvania Death Penalty Assessment Report, October 2007). Read more information about the report. See also Innocence, Representation, Race, Arbitrariness, and Studies.