2010-09-02 / Local & State

Pa.’s Death Penalty Exists In Name Only

By Mark Scolforo
ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – Last week Gov. Ed Rendell signed three more death warrants – for an Allegheny County man who killed his wife and teenage son nearly a decade ago, the murderer of a Reading police officer, and Jerry Chambers, who is on death row for the slaying of a 3-year-old Philadelphia girl who was beaten and left to die, trapped between a bed and a radiator.

Don’t expect them to be executed any time soon.

Rendell, a death penalty supporter, has signed 113 execution warrants during his two terms, but it appears highly likely he will leave office in a little over four months without seeing any of them carried out.

Since Pennsylvania reinstated the death penalty in the 1970s, only three men have been put to death, and all had given up their appeals. The state’s last contested execution occurred in 1962, even though the commonwealth currently has about 215 men and five women awaiting execution, including 50 who were sentenced back in the 1980s.

Despite the lack of executions and the continual flow of inmates sentenced to death by county courts, the number of inmates awaiting capital punishment is on a gradual decline, even though the commonwealth’s death row remains the nation’s fourthlargest.

At one point the Corrections Department housed nearly 250 condemned inmates, but their ranks have been thinned by appeals court and trial court reversals, resentencings to life in prison and deaths by natural causes and suicide.

Rendell considers the death penalty a deterrent, but only when executions are carried out relatively quickly.

“It’s very frustrating – it’s frustrating to the families, it’s frustrating to the police,’’ he said. “You can build anything in the world in three years. You should be able to have all appeals exhausted in three years.’’

The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association attributes state’s de facto death penalty moratorium to actions – or lack of action – by federal judges, particularly those on the Philadelphiabased 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“What we’re finding is there are long stays and long delays in scheduling that are having the effect of preventing these sentences from being carried out,’’ said Richard Long, executive director of the district attorneys’ association.

But defense lawyers with extensive experience in capital punishment cases say inadequate funding of criminal defense on the state level is the main reason for the lack of executions. They contend that the state’s capital murder trials are plagued by problems that state and federal appeals courts cannot ignore, that there are systemic problems with how the state conducts capital cases, and that Rendell’s three-year proposal would exacerbate those conditions.

“Speeding people through the justice system is what, historically, has led to false convictions and people being killed,’’ said Michael Engle, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. He said eliminating the death penalty would save money, lighten the appellate caseload and stop the use of death sentences that mislead victims’ families.

Since Pennsylvania reinstated the death penalty in 1978, state courts have overturned 80 death sentences in the commonwealth and the federal courts an additional 44, said Harrisburg-based assistant federal defender Robert Dunham, who led the Death Penalty Resource Center in the 1990s.

More than half were overturned because of ineffective defense lawyering, but others were caused by prosecutorial misconduct, racial discrimination in jury selection and improper argument and jury instructions, he said.

Of those 124 cases, 69 have since had a subsequent final determination, and only five death sentences were reinstated, he said. Many reversals occur with the full consent of prosecutors, in recognition of problems that occurred at trial. Those figures relate to postconviction appeals, not direct appeals that are confined to the trial record – 93 more were overturned through direct appeal, often involving invalid aggravating circumstances, problems with the evidence, and improper argument or jury instructions.

“So long as Pennsylvania systematically fails to adequately provide resources at trial, cases will be reversed post-conviction,’’ Dunham said.

Attorney Marc Bookman, a founder of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation in Philadelphia, said “an ungodly amount of money’’ has been spent on the death penalty in Pennsylvania.

“Aside from the moral issue, it’s an incredible waste of money,’’ Bookman said. “We’re propping this thing up so that some of our leaders can claim to be tough on law and order.

“But it’s all just a farce. It’s all just pretend.’’

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