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January 3, 2017

Death penalty in Pennsylvania so dysfunctional that it cannot complete long-overdue report on its dysfunction

Unless and until the newly enacted reform ballot initiative magically fixes a whole bunch of problems, California will still be able to lay claim to having the most dysfunctional death penalty system in the United States.  But this new local article, headlined "Three years late, seminal death penalty report still unfinished," highlights why Pennsylvania come in a pretty close second. Here are excerpts: 

Already three years behind schedule, a committee studying flaws in Pennsylvania's death penalty is still a long way away from issuing its much-anticipated report.  The stakes for the Senate's Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment are high, ever since Gov. Tom Wolf vowed nearly two years ago to block executions until its recommendations are issued and acted upon.

But elevated from obscurity by Wolf's moratorium, the all-volunteer committee has no individual budget and no dedicated staff members, and has consistently seen its time line pushed further and further into the future, much to the unhappiness of death-penalty backers.  The new year will see "meaningful, significant progress" in the panel's work, said Steve Hoenstine, a spokesman for state Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, a point man in the effort.  But Hoenstine wouldn't commit to the report being completed this year, given the scope of the questions being tackled.  "The goal isn't to produce something as quickly as possible that may or may not be correct," said Hoenstine, whose boss is a staunch opponent of capital punishment. "Studying bias in Pennsylvania's death penalty, it is just an enormous undertaking."

Wolf, a Democrat, announced his moratorium in February 2015, when he called the death penalty "error prone, expensive and anything but infallible." He has since issued reprieves to five inmates facing the death chamber, including Lehigh Valley mass murderer Michael Eric Ballard, who stabbed to death four people in a Northampton home in 2010 while on parole for a prior killing. Even without issuing findings, the advisory committee has proven controversial to death-penalty supporters, who charge the makeup of its 27 members is weighted against capital punishment.

Given the moratorium, it is no surprise that the report continues to be delayed, said Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli, a Democrat who is a vocal death penalty backer. With executions halted, there's no incentive for the committee to finish its work, he said. "I don't think it is ever going to come," Morganelli said. "Why would they release it?"

The committee, approved by the Senate in 2011, is looking into 17 aspects of capital punishment, including its cost, its impact on public safety, its potential for racial or economic bias, and whether there are sufficient safeguards against the innocent being executed.  The report originally was due in December 2013. The panel includes judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, clergy members, college professors, a relative of a murder victim, victims advocates, officials from the American Civil Liberties Union and two other nonprofits, and police and corrections representatives.

Hoenstine said delays have nothing to do with the moratorium.  He noted the committee was established while Wolf's predecessor, Tom Corbett, a Republican former prosecutor, was governor.  "This is something that happened long before Gov. Wolf took office and, therefore, long before this moratorium took place," Hoenstine said. "It is a bipartisan search for the truth. It is nothing but that."

Like much of the nation, the state has contentiously debated capital punishment, under which scores of Pennsylvania inmates have seen their sentences reversed. None have been executed here against their will since John F. Kennedy was president.

The committee's work is spearheaded by the Joint State Government Commission, a research wing of the Legislature, with assistance from a state commission on fairness in the courts and by researchers from Penn State University.  Glenn Pasewicz, executive director of the Joint State Government Commission, has said research has proven laborious, given the need for data collectors to go from county courthouse to county courthouse gathering statistics about homicide cases, when the death penalty is sought and when it is imposed.  According to Hoenstine, that work is ongoing. "We want it to be data driven and based on clean data, reliable data," Hoenstine said. "That's a time-consuming process."...

Pennsylvania has 175 prisoners on death row, but it rarely performs an execution, going back well before Wolf's moratorium. Just three men have been put to death in the modern era of capital punishment, and all were volunteers who abandoned legal challenges to their sentences. The last was Philadelphia "house of horrors" murderer Gary Heidnik, who was lethally injected in 1999.

January 3, 2017 at 11:14 AM | Permalink

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MEH

Posted by: Docile the Kind Soul | Jan 3, 2017 1:06:35 PM

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