Study finds major flaws in PA death penalty cases
Tuesday, October 09, 2007
By Wade Malcolm, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pennsylvania's death penalty system has "substantial" flaws that put potentially innocent death row inmates at risk for execution, according to a new analysis of the state's capital punishment procedures.
The study, conducted by the American Bar Association, also noted that minorities comprise a significantly higher proportion of death row inmates.
The four-year study conducted by a team of legal professionals contends that inmates facing death often receive inadequate legal representation, particularly those from poor and minority backgrounds.
Representatives of the research team and the American Bar Association, which commissioned the study for Pennsylvania and seven other states, are expected to discuss the report's findings at a news conference this morning in Harrisburg.
The association supports a nationwide moratorium on executions to allow time for states to address what the Bar Association sees as flaws in the legal process.
Six people who were sentenced to death in Pennsylvania have been exonerated since the penalty was reinstituted in 1978, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, an advocacy group opposed to capital punishment.
Only three people have actually been put to death in that time, the last being in 1999.
The authors of the report made several recommendations specifically for Pennsylvania, which include:
* Requiring the preservation of all biological evidence in capital cases throughout an inmate's incarceration on death row, something the state does not do.
* Ensuring all defense attorneys in capital cases have achieved the level of legal training recommended by the Bar Association for lawyers working on death penalty cases. The majority of death penalty sentences are overturned because of poor legal representation.
* Mandating that inmates are provided legal representation during the appeals process at the state level. Currently, defendants are not guaranteed a lawyer on appeal if they cannot afford one.
* Providing statewide funding for adequate legal counsel in capital cases. Currently, county governments, not the state, are responsible for providing public defenders in all criminal cases, and their competency varies.
Members of the assessment team that completed the report had "varying perspectives" on capital punishment and were not required to "support or oppose the death penalty or a moratorium on executions," the report noted.
The Bar Association said it would like Pennsylvania to complete its own comprehensive study assessing the death penalty system.
David Hoover, a community organizer with the American Civil Liberties Union and death penalty opponent, said he and other advocates hope the report will lead the state to re-evaluate the penalty.
"The real important issue is that Pennsylvania does a comprehensive review of what's going on with the death penalty," he said. "That's the responsible thing to do."
Pennsylvania has been criticized in recent years for housing an inordinately high percentage of minorities on its death row.
In a 2003 study, the state Supreme Court Committee on Racial and Gender Bias in the Justice System found more than two-thirds of death row inmates were minorities, despite the fact that minorities comprised only 11 percent of the total prison population.
An NAACP study released in January reported Pennsylvania had the highest percentage of minority death row inmates of any state in the U.S. as of July 2006. The latest figures available from the state Department of Corrections puts the minority population on death row at about 68 percent.
"It's hard for us to say our state system is fair and unbiased if there are these disparities," Mr. Hoover said.
* United Methodists Against the Death Penalty
* A United Methodist Witness in PA
* PA Abolitionists (Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty)