Friday, May 04, 2007

Why PA needs to take a long, hard look at the death penalty

I said earlier in the week that I wanted to comment on the introduction of legislation to create a study commission to examine the death penalty in Pennsylvania with a two year suspension of executions. But I don't have to write it out. You can hear all about it at the website of United for Progress, a radio show that airs in south central PA on Sundays. The discussion is about 15 minutes into the show. (MP3)

And The (Harrisburg) Patriot News made the argument clearly on Monday:
In Pennsylvania, there have been six Death Row exonerations since 1986, which by itself impugns the notion that justice is being served through Pennsylvania's application of the death penalty. Collectively, these six innocent individuals spent 57 years wrongfully imprisoned.

While we suspect that most individuals sitting on Death Row committed the crimes of which they were convicted, there nonetheless is a deeply troubling mass of evidence that poor and minority individuals are disproportionately prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to death in capital crimes.

Poor defendants almost never have the means to hire competent private defense counsel, or the resources to engage investigators, obtain expert witnesses or pay for tests. Even the cost of transcripts can be beyond reach....

Our legal system at its most basic level is supposed to be all about equal justice before the law. One cannot look at Pennsylvania's application of the death penalty, the ultimate punishment, and have any confidence that equal justice is being meted out. The time to stop this miscarriage of justice is now.

When Senator Jim Ferlo introduced his proposal to examine the death penalty, we introduced the Pennsylvania Moratorium Coalition. In response, Governor Rendell and the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association pulled out the usual misinformation:
Mr. Rendell, who was Philadelphia district attorney in the 1970s and early '80s, maintained that the state already has "a de facto moratorium," meaning no death-row inmates have been executed for years, while they are still appealing their convictions. (Pittsburgh Post Gazette)

The gov continues to play on the public's lack of knowledge about the law. The appeals process is only looking for errors in law. It is not a thorough reexamination of all of the facts in the case.

Ferlo's bill would provide an opportunity to do a systemic review of how capital punishment operates in PA.
"I wouldn't call an official moratorium unless I saw overwhelming evidence that the death penalty was used in a racially biased fashion ... or that the death penalty is being used in cases where there are a high number of errors," Rendell said.

Rendell said he hadn't seen convincing evidence of either, and argued the advent of widespread use of DNA technology has significantly reduced the chance of wrongful convictions in capital cases going forward. (The Patriot News)

Is he joking? We have a death row that is 70% minorities, the highest percentage in the country. Whites are victims of homicide 50% of the time but are the victims in capital cases more than 80% of the time. And the Philadelphia DA's office was caught training its prosecutors on how to strike minorities from juries. All of these issues could be examined by Ferlo's study commission.

And another thing. DNA from the perpetrator is only available in 15% of homicide cases. The idea that DNA technology solves the problem is not based in fact.

And I'm just getting started. Take action. Call your senator and ask him or her to support Senator Ferlo's proposal. It doesn't have a bill number yet because it hasn't been formally introduced, but they know about it. Believe me, they know about it.

Andy in Harrisburg

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