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August 20, 2014

"15 years without an execution: the death penalty in Pennsylvania"

The title of this post is the headline of this local article highlighting Pennsylvania's remarkably long de facto moratorium on executions despite sending a significant number of murderers to death row." Here are the details:

Pennsylvania's Governor Tom Corbett has issued his thirty-sixth execution warrant. Michael Parrish, from Monroe County, is scheduled for execution in October after being convicted of killing his girlfriend and baby.

But according to experts, if the current trend continues, it could be decades before that ever happens. "Anyone who fights the death penalty today can go on for 15 to 25 years on death row," said Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli.

Pennsylvania ranks fourth in the United States for the most people on death row. Close to 200 people currently have a death sentence, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. But the state has executed just three people in the last 35 years.

Morganelli said lengthy appeals are a factor, but not the sole, or biggest influence. "We have federal judges who constantly block these executions…It has nothing to do with the guilt or innocence of the defendant. It is because the federal judges are philosophically opposed to the death penalty," Morganelli said. Other experts said overturned death sentences are also a reason.

Notably, Pennsylvania's modern experience with the death penalty seems somewhat comparable to what has transpired in California; the facts and factors in Pennsylvania thus seem similar to those stressed in Jones v. Chappell, last month's controversial federal district court ruling that California's death penalty is unconstitutional under Eighth Amendment (basics here). I would think more than a few savvy defense lawyers representing death row defendants in Pennsylvania are likely adding Jones claims to their appeals.

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August 20, 2014 at 10:00 AM | Permalink

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Kentucky has only executed 5 people since 1953, only 3 since the Supreme Court reinstituted the death penalty in 1975. Two of the last three people Kentucky executed withdrew their appeals and demanded that the sentence be carried out. There are only 34 people on death row.

A new defendant (not included in the 34 mentioned above) was condemned by a Jefferson County (Louisville) jury in July-August 2014, but he has not yet been formally sentenced. Using DNA testing on evidence from a 1983 "cold case" rape and murder (the woman was shot twice in the back of the head), prosecutors convicted a defendant who had previously had his convictions and death sentences reversed, for two other 1983 murders that occurred within a few weeks of the one he was just convicted of in 2014. He eventually pleaded guilty to second degree murder in those cases and served a 28-year sentence (reduced by good conduct time and other credits). Since 2006, he has been serving a sentence for being a felon in possession of a handgun, which will end in 2015. During the sentencing phase of his 2014 rape and murder case, the Judge permitted the prosecutors to tell the jury of his two prior murder convictions, which is certain to be raised as an issue on appeal and in habeas corpus.

In 2009, one death row inmate who had been there since 1981 finally succumbed to cancer. Because 3-4 of Kentucky's death row inmates have completely exhausted their court challenges (both direct appeals and state and Federal habeas corpus petitions), it is possible that Kentucky may execute them in the next 1-2 years.

Public opinion polls in Kentucky show that 2/3 of the people support the death penalty. In 2008, however, there were 106 "death qualified" juries seated in Kentucky; they recommended the death penalty zero (0) times. Things change when they make you look another human being in the eye and say, "kill him".

Posted by: Jim Gormley | Aug 20, 2014 10:36:44 AM

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