Panel Discusses Death Penalty in Pennsylvania
March 6, 2009 — Prominent defense attorneys, a former prosecutor, a judge and a state lawmaker debated Pennsylvania’s capital justice system during a March 6 symposium at Earle Mack School of Law that was co-sponsored by the Drexel College of Arts and Sciences.
Pennsylvania has the fourth-largest population of death-row inmates in the country, after California, Texas and Florida, said Robert Zaller, a history professor at Drexel University and board member of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
The state’s capital justice system is fraught with disparities, said Jules Epstein, of counsel at Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg and an associate professor at Widener Law School. Unlike other states, Pennsylvania does not require judges to instruct capital juries about the option of imposing life without parole and does not mandate two-attorney teams to defend those being tried, Epstein said.
“Pennsylvania’s capital justice system does not operate in an even-handed manner,” said Lisette M. McCormick, executive director of the state’s Interbranch Commission for Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness. As of 2003, minorities made up 68 percent of Pennsylvania’s death-row population but just 11 percent of the state’s general census, McCormick said. The commission also found that, in Philadelphia, African Americans had been struck from juries twice as often as whites, McCormick said.
Former Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce L. Castor Jr. said just three people have been executed in Pennsylvania since 1962, all of whom gave up their right to appeal and none of whom were black.
Concerns about racial disparities aside, death-penalty cases are extremely costly, since 2/3 must be retried because of attorney incompetence or prosecutorial misconduct, said the Hon. Renee Cardwell Hughes of the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas.
“I care that it costs $1.9 million more to execute a person than give him life without parole,” Hughes said, contending that the money should be spent on school construction or other projects that reduce criminal behavior.
Ellen Greenlee, chief defender of the Defenders Association of Philadelphia, said the death penalty has little deterrent effect, since criminals seldom if ever anticipate that the robberies they commit will go awry and lead to violence.
State Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf, a Republican from Montgomery/Bucks counties and former assistant district attorney, said the exoneration of nine Pennsylvania inmates through the use of DNA proves that innocent people can be wrongfully convicted.
Greenleaf said the state needs to adopt reforms to ensure that innocent people do not wind up on death row.
Ed Martone, a co-founder of New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said a growing consensus among prosecutors about the cost and ineffectiveness of the death penalty ultimately swayed Trenton lawmakers to abolish capital punishment in 2007.
While bills to end capital punishment have recently been introduced in Nebraska, Colorado, New Mexico, Montana, New Hampshire, Maryland, Washington and Kansas, Epstein said, no such legislation has been sponsored in Pennsylvania.
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