I truely important announcement was made today in Philadelphia…. humanity and justice have finally begun to reach the government of that state. Like many states before it… it is taking steps to hault executions… executions that have been found to be carried out on innocent people and often as a result of an inherently racist system. How many more states still kill prisoners? How many of those prisoners were actually proven innocent later… it’s about time Pennsylvania came clean with a flawed and inhumane system.
Posted on Wed, Mar. 05, 2003
Pennsylvania report urges execution ban
A state Supreme Court committee says more time is needed to study the role of race in death-row cases.
By Ralph Vigoda
Inquirer Staff Writer
The state should declare a moratorium on executions until the role of race in death-penalty cases can be determined, a Pennsylvania Supreme Court committee has concluded.
The report mirrors studies at the federal level and in other states that are grappling with death-row populations that include a large number of minority inmates. Illinois and Maryland were the only two states that enacted moratoriums, but Maryland’s new governor, Robert Ehrlich Jr., lifted its when he took office in January.
“There’s a concern around the country about the fairness and accuracy of the death penalty,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. “There have been too many mistakes, and in trying to get to the root cause, you sometimes find that race plays a role.”
Other suggestions in the 549-page report from the Committee on Racial and Gender Bias – released yesterday, three years after the state Supreme Court appointed the committee to study Pennsylvania’s criminal-justice system – include spending more money on public defenders’ offices and hiring more courtroom interpreters for those with limited English skills.
Gov. Rendell, a former prosecutor, does not favor halting executions.
“The governor believes we need to make the death-penalty process more fair by guaranteeing access to DNA evidence and guaranteeing access to legal representation but does not support a moratorium,” said his spokesman, Ken Snyder.
The next step is for two task forces to consider the report. Rendell’s wife, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Marjorie O. Rendell, is chairwoman of one of them; the other is led by Philadelphia City Solicitor Nelson Diaz.
The report recommends further study of the death-penalty issue without taking a stand on whether any moratorium should be permanent. It does not ask prosecutors to stop seeking the death penalty.
“The committee found serious questions exist about the fairness and evenhandedness of the present system of capital litigation and sentencing, and believes a thorough and comprehensive study needs to be undertaken to determine the impact of race,” said Andre Dennis, a Philadelphia lawyer and one of the committee members who focused on the issue of race and the death penalty.
“The moratorium should exist until that happens and there are procedures in place to ensure that the death penalty is administered fairly and impartially.”
Pennsylvania is one of 38 states with a death penalty, and one of 11 in which reports studying the fairness of justice systems have been commissioned, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. (In New Jersey, a bill passed in January by the Assembly calls for establishing a nonpartisan commission to examine the death-penalty system. It is pending in the state Senate.)
Statistics from the state Corrections Department show that 69 percent of death-row inmates in Pennsylvania are minorities, or 168 out of 242. The minority population of Pennsylvania, the report points out, is 11 percent.
“There is no way you can look at those numbers and conclude that the system plays on an even playing field,” said William DiMascio, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, a Philadelphia organization that monitors prisons. “Something is amiss here.”
Such studies are not without critics. The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a victims’ rights organization in Sacramento, Calif., yesterday called the Pennsylvania report worthless.
“For two reasons,” spokeswoman Susan Blake said. “One, the sources to which the committee looked and quoted are significantly opposed to the death penalty.
“Two, comparing the number of minorities in the general population to the number of minorities on death row is irrelevant. The general population doesn’t commit murder. The correct comparison is the death-row population to the number of people who commit murder.”
She pointed to FBI statistics showing that of nearly 14,000 murders in Pennsylvania in the 25 years from 1974 to 1999, 63 percent were committed by minorities. That, she said, is close to the state’s death-row percentage.
Beyond the death-penalty question, the committee tackled dozens of issues. For example, it recommended that the state, rather than counties, fund public defenders’ offices.
Some suggestions are simple, such as having separate areas in courthouses for the accused and victims in domestic- and sexual-violence matters.
The report also recommends statewide standards for trial and appellate lawyers in capital cases, and includes a list of practices that could serve as models throughout the state; one county, for example, has child care for jurors.
“This report is really a blueprint for recommendations,” said committee member Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts. “There are plenty that are not going to take a lot of money. I think we’re hopeful that, as Supreme Court Chief Justice [Ralph J.] Cappy said, this won’t be a report that will sit on the shelf.”
Pennsylvania has executed three people, all white, by lethal injection since 1995, when capital punishment resumed after a 33-year hiatus. Gary Heidnik was put to death in July 1999; Leon Moser and Keith Zettlemoyer were executed in 1995.
Contact staff writer Ralph Vigoda at 610-313-8109 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Inquirer staff writers Leslie Pappas and Amy Worden contributed to this report.
? 2003 Philadelphia Inquirer and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.