2011-10-13 / Local & State

Case Spotlights Lawyers’ Role In Pennsylvania Death Penalty

By Mark Scolforo

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – A legal battle currently being waged before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court – with the chief justice as a central figure – could dramatically transform how death penalty appeals are handled in a state with 208 people on death row but only three executions over the past five decades.

The issue, which has arisen from the case of a man convicted of killing four people in the mid-1990s, is being pushed by Chief Justice Ronald Castille, who has leveled charges of improper tactics and unethical lawyering against the Defender Association of Philadelphia's capital case appeals unit.

Last week, a majority of the divided high court ordered the federally funded association to list all of the death row defendants it represents, explain its authority to work in state courts and provide other information.

The latest court order follows a blistering 34-page opinion that Castille wrote in April. The chief justice, joined by two others, said much of the high court's time was being consumed by what he called “strategic diversions” in an effort by the lawyers to undermine the death penalty, largely through numerous lengthy filings that cause delays.

“When faux outrage about the delays their overall strategy necessarily induces serves their purpose, they forward that claim, accusing Pennsylvania courts of incompetence or laziness, their argument unencumbered by concerns for accuracy, honesty and candor,” Castille wrote.

“This is what federal judicial financing of the (association's) state court litigation strategy has wrought in Pennsylvania,” he said. “When the families of murder victims and other concerned citizens ask why there is no effective death penalty in Pennsylvania, the dirty secret answer is: ask the federal court.”

Neither Castille nor the Defender Association would comment, and the filing is due later this month, but Leigh Skipper, the chief federal public defender in Philadelphia, told the Philadelphia Inquirer in May that their lawyers cannot choose which defendant should get their best efforts.

“We take the cases as we find them,” he told the paper. “We can't differentiate between `good murderers' and `bad murderers.' A lawyer has an ethical obligation.”

Cumberland County District Attorney Dave Freed said prosecutors around the state feel the death penalty case lawyers from the Defender Association do not play by the rules.

“A fair and level playing field is what we're looking for,” Freed said. “When the highest court in the commonwealth has recognized these issues, it's pretty fair to say it's a problem.”

The defendant in the case currently at issue is Mark Newton Spotz, 40, whose 1995 killing spree began with the death of his brother in Clearfield County and continued with the slayings of three older women in Cumberland, York and Schuylkill counties.

In April, the Supreme Court upheld his Cumberland County murder conviction in the shooting death of Betty Amstutz, and Castille wrote separately to express his criticism of the role the Defender Association's death penalty appeals unit plays in state court proceedings.

Justice Seamus McCaffery supported the chief justice's opinion, and Justice Joan Orie Melvin agreed to the concluding section in which Castille called for new limits on the size of defense filings and an overall review of procedures.

Justice Thomas Saylor said he would refer the matter to the court's lawyer disciplinary board.

Spotz's lawyers sought reargument and Castille's removal from the case in May, after which the Cumberland County district attorney's office asked the high court for legal sanctions, saying the defense tactics were precisein ly the sort of abuse that Castille had raised.

There were subsequent filings and counterfilings, culminating on Oct. 3 with the Supreme Court's order directing Leigh Skipper, who heads up the office, to respond within 10 days. Baer dissented, joined by Todd, saying the order could be construed as a discovery demand placed on a litigant by a court, and that the motions the defense filed should simply have been denied or allowed to have been withdrawn.

The reasons for Pennsylvania's de facto death penalty moratorium have long been debated.

Back in January, then- Gov. Ed Rendell chose one of his final news conferences while in office to say the death penalty should be revamped or simply replaced with a sentence of life without parole. He noted that he and his five predecessors had approved 386 death warrants. Gov. Tom Corbett, his successor, has signed eight more this year.

Rendell blamed “a system of endless appeals,” but defense lawyers point to the state's underfunding of criminal defense, saying that results in flawed trials that the appellate courts can't ignore. As evidence of that, they point to death penalty cases that have been overturned on appeal, including by the state Supreme Court.

The Inquirer said in May that the association's death penalty team has a $14 million annual budget, most of it from the federal government. Castille said he was uncertain about their funding, but that the policy of federal money going toward state-level murder appeals “has been determined and implemented without the consultation and involvement of this court, or of any commonwealth authority.”

Late last month, the high court ordered that a Philadelphia senior judge look into whether the legal fees the city pays for lawyers capital cases are “so inadequate that it can be presumed that counsel is constitutionally ineffective” on a global scale, or if that analysis is better done on a caseby case basis.

Freed said he has no problem with death penalty cases getting extra levels of judicial review, as long as the court's rules are followed.

“There’s a feeling in the anti-death-penalty crowd, `We're going to do whatever it takes, because whatever is right and just is on our side,”' Freed said. “Well, we've got the law of Pennsylvania on our side, and we're going to do what's right every time.”

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