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Pennsylvania’s death penalty needs a radical rethinking, long-awaited report finds

Gov. Wolf placed a moratorium on executions awaiting an analysis of the death penalty in Pennsylvania. The long-overdue report found the system is wildly expensive and deeply flawed.

The Department of Corrections will not release the health status of inmates to family members unless they are listed as the single emergency contact in documents that in some cases are as old as when the inmate was first incarcerated.
The Department of Corrections will not release the health status of inmates to family members unless they are listed as the single emergency contact in documents that in some cases are as old as when the inmate was first incarcerated.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / File Photograph

It's been seven years since Pennsylvania's General Assembly commissioned an analysis of capital punishment in the state — and for the last two, Gov. Wolf has placed a moratorium on executions, awaiting the outcome.

Finally released Monday, the dense, 280-page Joint State Government Commission report found cause for grave concern in the current state of the death penalty in Pennsylvania, where three people have been executed in the last 56 years, yet just since 1985, more than 466 death warrants have been signed.

It noted the high number of people with intellectual disability and mental illness on death row — populations that are constitutionally protected from capital punishment. And it found the punishment had been unevenly applied, affected by factors like the race of the victim and the county where the crime occurred.

"Neither judicial economy nor fairness is served when the more than 97 percent of cases in which death sentences are converted to life sentences or less leave death row only after post-conviction review," the task force noted.

Reggie Shuford, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said in a statement that the bottom line is simple: "Capital punishment is deeply flawed."

The report, developed by a group of four senators and a legal advisory committee of prosecutors, defense attorneys, and researchers, outlined numerous possible reforms, including a regular proportionality review process and a Racial Justice Act that would allow people to challenge death sentences on a statistical basis rather than requiring them to show intentional discrimination.

Other recommendations include:

  1. automatically disqualifying a person with mental illness from receiving the death penalty.

  2. requiring a judge to determine pretrial if a defendant is intellectually disabled, making them exempt.

  3. creating a state-funded capital defender office to represent people charged with capital crimes at trial and on appeal.

State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, a Republican representing parts of Montgomery and Bucks Counties, said those reforms are critical, particularly given that since 1978, six death-row inmates have been exonerated.

"I don't know if the votes are there in the General Assembly to abolish the death penalty, but there are certain things we can do to ensure that no innocent person is condemned to die," Greenleaf, who was part of the task force, said in a statement.

The findings drew immediate praise from death-penalty opponents, as well as criticism from prosecutors. A spokesman for Wolf said he was still reviewing the recommendations.

"The committee that issued the report was largely comprised of anti-death penalty advocates, and it appears that its findings restate the usual litany of opinions held by death penalty opponents," said Richard Long, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, which noted the importance of the death penalty as a tool for prosecutors, for example in the case of Cosmo DiNardo, who killed four men in Bucks County in 2017 and led authorities to the victims' remains as part of a deal to evade that punishment.

READ MORE: Judge: Philly man in solitary for 24 years deserves a chance at general population

The analysis noted that the process of sentencing people to death is extremely costly and largely ineffective: As of 2015, it was about 12 times more expensive to try a capital case in Philadelphia ($59,169) than a noncapital homicide case ($5,177), the report found. It costs about $15,010 annually more to incarcerate a death-row inmate — which, the task force concluded, would add up to $39 million over time just for the 150 people currently on death row. Yet the outcomes are modest: The three people who've been executed in the last 56 years all waived their appeals — and all had psychiatric problems.

"It's impossible to read this report and not come away thinking that a life-without-parole sentence would be fairer, quicker, and more cost-efficient than capital punishment," said Marc Bookman, co-director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation. "Many people will conclude that having a death penalty in Pennsylvania simply doesn't make sense for moral, practical, or financial reasons. For those who still think it's worthwhile to keep it in place, the study documents the extensive work necessary to satisfy the constitutional requirements of fairness and due process, while minimizing the chances of error."

Advocates emphasized that many of the concerns raised are not new.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner said it points to the need for swifter justice and pledged, if elected, to begin signing death warrants within 48 hours of taking office.

"Today's report, which notes that a majority of Pennsylvanians favor the death penalty, confirms that Gov. Wolf should immediately reverse his moratorium," Wagner said in a statement. "We cannot endorse a system that prioritizes the lives of school shooters and cop killers over our children and our law enforcement officers, no matter what the cost is for doing so."

His comments underscored that politics will ultimately guide the response to the report.

"Pennsylvania's death penalty is broken, and it has been for many years," said Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. "The real questions are whether the commonwealth has the political will to make the system fair and whether keeping capital punishment is worth the cost of fixing it. If Pennsylvania wants to keep the death penalty and is serious about trying to fix it, the many good recommendations contained in this bipartisan study provide a good place to start."