Thursday, October 25, 2007

Capital punishment under the microscope

The fallout from the American Bar Association's report on Pennsylvania's death penalty continues. In the week following the report's release, six editorial boards from throughout Pennsylvania weighed in to call for at least a review and reform with some calling for a suspension of executions. From Towanda to Philadelphia to Beaver County, it is recognized that there are significant problems with capital punishment in the Commonwealth.

Yesterday former state Senator Edward Helfrick called for hearings on the ABA report at the General Assembly via an op-ed in The Patriot News:
I know my former colleagues in Harrisburg -- including those who support capital punishment -- don't want a system that sends innocent people to death row. And I know that they don't want a system where a poor defendant is forced to pay with his or her life because a public defender or court-appointed attorney is overworked and without funding to conduct a decent investigation. I know they don't want a system that traumatizes victims' families for years (or even) decades because of reversals and errors.

The American Bar Association has opened the door for my former colleagues to give capital punishment in Pennsylvania closer look. I hope they take advantage of this opportunity.

On Monday, The Philadelphia Daily News featured an op-ed by public policy consultant Deborah Leavy, calling Pennsylvania's system of capital punishment "broken":
Most Pennsylvanians would be surprised to learn that the percentage of African-Americans on death row is second only to Louisiana. That's right, we beat Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, and 45 other states for this badge of shame. Philadelphia is the worst offender, with "a significantly higher" proportion of African-Americans sentenced to death compared to whites who committed similar crimes, according to a study by a Pennsylvania Supreme Court committee. The study found that in a third of cases against African-Americans, race meant the difference between life and death.

The ABA reported other problems: inadequate time to appeal, no statewide system for ensuring that attorneys are competent to represent capital defendants, and more.

Clearly the capital punishment system in Pennsylvania is broken. The ABA report made a number of recommendations, which the governor and legislature should work to enact promptly.

In the meantime, no one sentenced under such flawed procedures should be put to death.

Finally, on Monday, WHYY in Philadelphia hosted an hour-long discussion (Real Audio file) on the ABA report with Professor Anne Bowen Poulin of Villanova University School of Law, who chaired the ABA team and is a former Assistant U.S. Attorney, and Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney Ronald Eisenberg. Listen to this audio and you'll get to hear Eisenberg make the incredible claim that African-Americans may actually be under-represented on death row and that defense attorneys in capital cases have 3 or 4 expert witnesses while the poor DAs only have one.

Andy in Harrisburg

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