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January 3, 2014

Pennsylvania task force struggling through comprehensive review of state's death penalty

As reported in this local article, headlined "PA Task Force Delays Deadline For Possible Death Penalty Reforms," folks in the Keystone State are struggling through an effort to better understand the state's death penalty. Here are the details:

Thirty-two states, including Pennsylvania, have the death penalty. Since 1976 when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment, Rhode Island (1984), New York (2007), New Jersey (2007), New Mexico (2009) Connecticut (2012), and Maryland (2013) have abolished it. But the repeal in the last three states was not retroactive so they still have prisoners on death row. Massachusetts' death penalty statute was nullified in 1984 by court rulings.

Could Pennsylvania become the next state to abolish capital punishment? The Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment is nearing the end of a two-year comprehensive study of all aspects of the death penalty. “No one has ever done this before in Pennsylvania,” said state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R-Montgomery), whose legislation created the commission.

The Penn State Justice Center for Research, the Inter-branch Commission on Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness and the Joint State Government Commission are researching all aspects of capital punishment for the task force. They were supposed to report findings and make recommendations this month but have asked for an extension to spring to complete what Greenleaf calls a “very laborious and time-consuming” process, which involves examining death penalty cases in every county of the state.

Three prisoners have been executed in the commonwealth since 1976, two in 1995 and the other in 1999. During that same 37-year period, 1,352 prisoners were put to death in the U.S.

Greenleaf said the researchers are looking at policies, procedures and impact of the death penalty including whether it’s being applied disproportionately based on race. “They’re having primary concerns themselves with statutory aggravators and mitigators; they’re the factors that come into play when a jury decides whether they give the death penalty or not,” Greenleaf said.

Of the 189 inmates on Pennsylvania’s death row, 101 are black — 53 percent. Louisiana has the highest rate of blacks on death row at 70 percent. Nationwide, 41 percent of those awaiting execution are black. The task force is also looking at everything from intellectual disabilities of inmates to the appeals process, from the use of lethal injection to the impact of the process on victims’ families.

Greenleaf, a former prosecutor, said the panel could suggest eliminating the death penalty in Pennsylvania. “We have to look at the report, but, of course, it could result in abolishing it or it could result in some changes or modifications of the process, everything is on the table right now," he said. "We want to see what their recommendations are.”

He added that the commonwealth’s adoption of DNA testing several years ago, which resulted in the exoneration of one death row inmate, is a pivotal factor in the basic question. “Is it more important that we convict every guilty person and execute them or is it more important that we never execute an innocent person?" Greenleaf said. "Our founding fathers said that it’s better to acquit a few guilty people than it is to convict one innocent person.”

January 3, 2014 at 06:38 AM | Permalink


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"Our founding fathers said that it’s better to acquit a few guilty people than it is to convict one innocent person.”

The only way to accomplish that is to convict no one of anything ever, since every human system occasionally errs. Therefore the criminal justices system in this and every other country should be abolished, right?

Of course it's so much silliness, which is what happens when you try to make policy decisions by slogan.

It's unsettling that the chairman of this commission doesn't know this (or makes like he doesn't know).

Look, it's not that hard. The public overwhelmingly supports, and the Constitution approves, the DP; there hasn't been even an argument that Pennsylvania has executed and innocent person in at least 50 years; and in many if not most cases, no sensate person could doubt factual guilt.

There are problems only if you want to imagine them -- which is, of course, exactly why such Commissions are created.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 3, 2014 7:11:55 AM

“In Coffin, (156 U.S. 432 at 453) the Court cited Professor Simon Greenleaf,
tracing back the presumption of innocence into deep antiquity:
Greenleaf traces this presumption (of innocence) to Deuteronomy” “19:10 That innocent blood be not shed in thy land, which the LORD thy G-d
giveth thee for an inheritance, and so blood be upon thee.
11 But if any man hate his neighbour, and lie in wait for him, and rise up against him, and smite him mortally that he die, and fleeth into one of these cities:
12 Then the elders of his city shall send and fetch him thence, and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die.”
13 Thine eye shall not pity him…

Is this the same Greenleaf? Were that it would.

Posted by: Adamakis | Jan 3, 2014 9:30:37 AM

New York did not abolish the death penalty. A state apoeals court found it unconstitutional.

Illinois was left off the list and did abolish the death penalty.

Posted by: Dudley Sharp | Jan 3, 2014 1:55:26 PM

My educated guess is that thousands of additonal innocents have been murdered in Pa, by repeat murderers and other known criminals that Pa has allowed to harm, again, either through parole, probation, unplanned release or escape, or by not locking up those criminals as they should have.

Innocents executed: zero

Which government program risks more innocents?

Posted by: Dudley Sharp | Jan 3, 2014 2:00:09 PM

Dudley Sharp --

I just have this feeling you'll be waiting a long time for a direct, substantive answer to your question.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 3, 2014 2:23:32 PM

"Indeed, concern about the injustice that results from the conviction of an innocent person has long been at the core of our criminal justice system. That concern is reflected, for example, in the “fundamental value determination of our society that it is far worse to convict an innocent man than to let a guilty man go free.” In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 372(1970) (Harlan, J., concurring). See also T. Starkie, Evidence 756 (1824) (“The maxim of the law is ... that it is better that ninety-nine ... offenders should escape, than that one innocent man should be condemned”)"

Schlup v. Delo 513 U.S. 298, 325 (1995)

Posted by: Michael R. Levine | Jan 3, 2014 2:31:38 PM

Bill Otis, it's my understanding that Dudley Sharp's question was rhetorical. Dudley, if I'm wrong about this, let me know.

However, I don't think the evidence supports that zero innocent individuals have been executed. It's a worthwhile discussion about whether guilty convicted murderers have killed more after their initial conviction than innocent individuals have been executed, but there would have to be actual concrete numbers, not hyperbole. Really, such a study would have to be systematic. And it isn't generally one that's done. The bulk of determinations of actual innocence have been for individuals awaiting death row (for obvious reasons - the determination matters for them). It's not made very often for individuals already executed, so we generally only hear anecdotal evidence. The biggest problem with such a study, though is for convictions not involving biological evidence.

Also, if we're talking LWOP, those who reoffend would have to be limited to the class of cases of escapes or in-prison murders and, even then, only in situations comparable to modern prison security conditions. Obviously, an exception can be made for juveniles who were granted parole. They can be included in the statistics generally without that condition.

If you have a proposal for how to do this study and some preliminary results, I will be happy to answer the question

Posted by: Erik M | Jan 4, 2014 12:58:20 AM

| However, I don't think the evidence supports that zero innocent individuals have been executed. |
\ However, I don't think that I dare name even one, because I'm the emperor and I have no clothes. /

Posted by: Adamakis | Jan 6, 2014 11:10:49 AM

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