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April 20, 2009

The real story of the death penalty in Kansas and Pennsylvania

I always appreciate reporting and analysis of the death penalty that moves beyond the usual (boring) rhetoric and looks at the reality of how the system gets applied in particular states.  And, helpfully, two new newspapers articles from Kansas and Pennsylvania fit this model.

From places in the heartland comes this piece, headlined "Ruling may void sentences," which includes these notable real-world details of what's the matter with Kansas:

A Kansas Supreme Court ruling that took the death penalty off the table for a Wichita man convicted of two murders could void the death sentences of three other Kansans, lawyers familiar with the law say....

Defense lawyers said the ruling demonstrates how the state's death penalty law remains largely unsettled.  Two of 11 defendants sentenced to death are now off death row, and lawyers said the remaining nine cases contain issues that have yet to be resolved by the state Supreme Court.

Wichita lawyer Richard Ney, who has defended death penalty cases in several states, said the Kansas law remains largely untested by the courts. "There's been a death penalty in Kansas for 15 years, and we haven't gotten one case -- not one single case -- through the first level of appeals," he said. "Not a single case has been affirmed by the Supreme Court of Kansas."

Rebecca Woodman, a state public defender who handles death penalty appeals, agreed. "The reversal rate is 100 percent," she said.

From the Keystone State comes this piece, headlined "Killers languish on Pennsylvania death row as appeals drag on, stats show," which shows the Keystone cop quality of capital punishment in its lead:

Accused cop killer Richard Poplawski is more likely to die from cancer than lethal injection. At least that's what statistics suggest.

Pennsylvania's death row holds 224 convicted killers, the fourth-most in the country. Pennsylvania has executed only three killers since the death penalty returned in 1978 and none in the past decade. During that same period, 20 death row inmates have died of natural causes.

Gov. Ed Rendell said he would sign a death warrant "without a minute's thought" if Poplawski, 22, of Stanton Heights is sent to death row for killing three Pittsburgh police officers April 4 outside his home.  But prosecutors have failed to get death sentences in the past three trials involving the slayings of police officers in Western Pennsylvania.

April 20, 2009 at 12:16 PM | Permalink

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Comments

Liberal judges are to blame for both. What is it about liberal judges and the death penalty?

Posted by: federalist | Apr 20, 2009 12:29:18 PM

Doug: While you're at it, here's a front-page piece from yesterday's Oregonian entitled, "Can Oregon Afford the Death Penalty?"

http://www.oregonlive.com/news/index.ssf/2009/04/can_oregon_afford_the_death_pe.html

Posted by: dm | Apr 20, 2009 12:55:14 PM

I admittedly am not familiar with the state judges in Kansas. But I would be very, very surprised if all of the death cases that are reversed in Kansas are the result of liberal judges. Isn't that just the default response? Easy to make, but wholly unsupported? I mean, Kansas isn’t known for its liberal populace.

In fact, given the 100% reversal rate coupled with the apparent impact one reversal has on separate case, it makes me think the culprit is more likely to be a systemic problem with the state prosecutors or death prosecutions generally in Kansas.

Posted by: DEJ | Apr 20, 2009 1:02:45 PM

Federalist, I love how federal courts are always right, except when they rule for defendants, in which case they're wrong by definition because they're not state courts. And state courts are always right, except when they rule for defendants, in which case they're wrong by definition because they're "liberal" or because they're not democratic like legislatures. And legislatures are always right, except when they narrow the death penalty, in which case they're not sufficiently attuned to popular opinion or else they're hatefully inconsiderate of victims.

Why not just cut out the middleman? Enough with the appeal to neutral principles. You like the death penalty. You think it should pretty much never be overturned. That's fine. But let's stop pretending the principles are more complicated than that.

Posted by: dm | Apr 20, 2009 1:06:49 PM

The rhetoric is indeed boring, professor, but on both sides it's perhaps a bit more consistent than your pretty repetitive which-way-is-the-wind-blowing-today, numbers-based approach. I'm bored with the process, but my real lament is over how many times the same obvious information must be repeated before some folks come around to acknowledging that despite repeated (there's that word again) efforts to reform it the death penalty isn't working and should be eliminated before we all become not bored, but numb.

Do you suppose that - if we adopted your most oft-repeated advice to pay less attention to it even as the problems with it become increasingly apparent - that's it's going to somehow turn around and become a more workable system in the future?

Posted by: Samuel | Apr 20, 2009 3:38:07 PM

I wouldn't mind having people on death-row be tested with new medical advancements, such as medicines and new drugs that could result in advanced medical treatment. Sure it could be considered cruel and inhumane, but I say the bad criminal offenders threw away their rights when they committed the crime. Plus, it could lead to increased revenue to help defray the high costs of imprisonment.
-Jack

Posted by: DC Divorce Lawyer | Apr 20, 2009 4:13:02 PM

Samuel,

I am trying to understand your criticism before responding. Are you refering to my interest in unbiased data on "the reality of how the system gets applied in particular states" when you apparently complain about my "pretty repetitive which-way-is-the-wind-blowing-today, numbers-based approach"?

Posted by: Doug B. | Apr 20, 2009 5:04:12 PM

"but I say the bad criminal offenders threw away their rights when they committed the crime."


Jack, I think you should ask Spencer if he agrees with your sentiments. I doubt he does.

Posted by: Jay | Apr 20, 2009 5:07:54 PM

Having written a brief in the Marsh case, I can say yes, the Kansas Supreme Court did indeed stretch the law to favor a capital defendant. Such opinions do pop up in unexpected places. Fortunately, they did in on federal law, so they could be and were reversed by SCOTUS.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Apr 20, 2009 6:09:58 PM

You've referred to yourself as "an agnostic" on the death penalty in the past, and indicated you have no problem with it depending on whether it is properly administered. Since it is not being properly administered (as you document regularly) and shows no sign that it ever will be - yes, I would characterize your years of indecision as a rather long-winded ambivalence. (A real answer would therefore seem not to be "blowing in the wind" for you.)

The "numbers" approach I refer to are your frequent complaints that other sentencing matters (than killing people) deserve more attention because they affect larger numbers of prisoners. I think comparing the relative significance of executing people to other punishments based mainly on the number of people involved is to sidestep some profound and more essential questions - like whether it is really ok for our judicial system to be killing people when it is not necessary for self-protection, and when they keep fouling things up regardless.

Posted by: Samuel | Apr 20, 2009 6:13:19 PM

Downtown juries hate the police. It interferes with the lucrative illegal local businesses that bring home the huge TV's, cars, and sea cruise vacations. See OJ. Any prosecutor failing to move a trial for the killing of a police officer out of downtown is malpracticing.

Inner city ghettos are not impoverished. They are lifestyle communities. The rent (as in lease of property) are not low. It is just that these folks would be driven out of any other community by their unacceptable behavior. They wake up at midnight, cursing loudly all night, fighting as adults. Their priority is getting high. They live the Roman Orgy lifestyle full time. Look at them wrong, they will blast away, holding their gun sideways.

Living in a ghetto is a choice, like choosing between golf community and marina living arrangements. They have nearly full immunity inside that community. Just put the huge stashes away, out of respect, when the police drive slowly by, and they will leave you alone. The lawyer hierarchy has herded crime there. It has completely abandoned the law abiding citizen there.

It is not at all clear who is stupid, people working hard and obeying the rules, or them, having a blast full time, with the endorsement of the criminal cult hierarchy.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Apr 21, 2009 7:18:11 AM

"Having written a brief in the Marsh case, I can say yes, the Kansas Supreme Court did indeed stretch the law to favor a capital defendan"

What a coincidence. I just wrote a brief saying that a court stretched the law, too! It is pretty freakin' amazing that whenever both you and I write briefs challenging the opinion of a court we BOTH say that the court stretched the law!

So, even though I have real clients and work for a living, and you work for a living by getting donations to serve people's generalized human need to put other people in jail or kill them after some legal pageantry (which makes it legal, rather than a crime), we really do have a lot in common!

Posted by: S.cotus | Apr 21, 2009 9:46:10 AM

100% reversal rate--that does suggest that there was a thumb on the scales of justice.

As for Pa., the DP has been thwarted there by the 3d Circuit.

Posted by: federalist | Apr 21, 2009 2:04:46 PM

"100% reversal rate--that does suggest that there was a thumb on the scales of justice."

How many death cases has the KSC heard, like two or three? Gimme a break. All of a sudden the 100% statistic seems a little misleading.

Pop Quiz. Which is more likely: (a) The Kansas Supreme Court is packed with liberals or (b) When the state passes a brand new statute, creating a new procedural scheme, it takes some time for prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys to acclimate to the new rules, discover their boundaries, and understand how they interact with the state and federal constitution?

And wasn't the key issue the fact that the jury received a legally invalid verdict form. Yeah, only wacko liberals would overturn a verdict because of that.

D

Posted by: dm | Apr 21, 2009 8:15:23 PM

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