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December 14, 2014

Detailing the dysfunction of Pennsylvania's death penalty system

Download (2)This lengthy local article, headlined "Capital punishment in Pennsylvania: When death means life: Commonwealth's death penalty system called expensive and dysfunctional," provide a review of how the Keystone State has a capital punishment system that seems to function as if it were operated by the Keystone Cops. Here are excerpts from the article, which is the first is an extended series:

Pennsylvania's death penalty has cost taxpayers more than $350 million for a dysfunctional system that has sentenced hundreds but hasn't executed anyone in 15 years, a Reading Eagle analysis has found.  The newspaper analysis comes three years after state lawmakers called for an intensive report on Pennsylvania's death penalty, and as a Montgomery County lawmaker maps out a proposal to abolish the system.

The long-overdue report is at least several months away from being issued. There still has been no reckoning of the system's massive financial or psychological cost — including the immeasurable agony of justice-seeking family members and the pain of families waiting for condemned relatives to be executed. "My sister didn't have a choice about when her life ended. Why should he?" said Diane Moyer of Robesonia, referring to convicted killer Glenn Lyons of Reading.

Lyons is one of 185 condemned inmates, making Pennsylvania's death row the fifth largest in the nation.  He's also one of 12 death row inmates prosecuted for murders committed in Berks County, which along with York County has the second-highest number of death row inmates in the state behind Philadelphia's 69.  It was 1937 when Pennsylvania last executed someone for a murder that took place in Berks.

Observers of the state's system both locally and nationally agreed it is deeply flawed. It is likely to get even more scrutiny as prosecutors move ahead with a death penalty case against Eric Frein, accused of ambushing and murdering a state trooper this year....

The newspaper's cost estimate is likely a conservative number.  That's because the estimate, which relies on a 2008 Maryland study by the Urban Institute, was calculated using the Pennsylvania inmates now on death row.  The estimate does not account for unsuccessful death penalty cases tried by prosecutors, nor does it include death row inmates whose sentences were overturned on appeal.

The 2008 study — which produced findings similar to other state studies — found that Maryland spent an average of $1.9 million more on cases that led to death sentences than on cases where the death penalty could have been sought but was not.  At least two experts, including the researcher of the Maryland report, said the study was a fair comparison for estimating the cost to Pennsylvania taxpayers.  Applying the Maryland per-case figure to Pennsylvania's current 185 death row inmates yields a Pennsylvania cost of $351.5 million....

The state has executed three men, all of whom gave up their appeals, since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.  But with so few executions among the 429 death warrants Pennsylvania governors have signed since 1985, experts say it's critical lawmakers know the cost to justify budget expenses with a projected $1.85 billion state shortfall in the upcoming fiscal year.  So far, the death penalty hasn't been part of the budget debate.

For the loved ones of the victims, like Moyer, the financial cost of the death penalty is outweighed by the emotional toll of likely never having the killer's execution carried out. Lyons used two kitchen knives to stab Leibig, 45, of Millcreek Township, Lebanon County, again and again, investigators said.  The brutal attack lasted up to 15 minutes.  Lyons, now 49, was convicted and sentenced to death by a Berks jury, but claims he didn't kill Leibig.

The state Supreme Court denied his appeal in 2013, and his execution was set for August, but a federal judge granted him a stay in July, and his appeal process continues.  Leibig's family is frustrated and disappointed, knowing the state may never follow through with his execution.  "He'll keep fighting and playing the system," Moyer said.  "He had a fair trial, and he was guilty.  Put him to death. Give him the injection."...

A death penalty that doesn't actually execute people frustrates those on both sides of the debate.  Death penalty proponents blame an endless and costly appeals process.  Opponents criticize a system with too little funding for poor defendants....

At least one Berks judge who once supported the death penalty has had a change of heart. The judge, who asked not to be identified, had thought execution was a just punishment for the state's worst offenders and a deterrent to others.  But after seeing how cases continuously circle the courts, the judge now thinks the death penalty is a waste of time and money and is unnecessarily difficult on the victim's loved ones holding out hope for an execution.

"It's horrible for the families," the judge said.  Death penalty rulings aren't foolproof and should be scrutinized, but there should also be a limit on appeals, the judge said. "Now there is hearing after hearing.  It never ends," the judge said....

"There is a problem with a law that is never carried out," he said. State Rep. Thomas R. Caltagirone, a Reading Democrat, said he's heard from victims' families how hard it is to sit and wait for the death penalty to be carried out.  "They say: 'We lost a loved one. Why is he still living? Where is the justice?'" Caltagirone said.  "And victim's rights groups are livid about the endless appeals."  But Caltagirone also said he wonders whether it's appropriate for the state to execute someone.  "I'm kind of torn on it," he said.

More than a dozen states have analyzed death penalty costs.  Some states found the costs nearly 50 percent to 70 percent higher than non-death penalty cases.  While the costs vary across the U.S., all found capital trials more expensive.  The reason?  Mostly because the process is more complicated at every point in the case.  A death penalty case involves more attorneys, witnesses and experts.  Jury selection is long, as are the trials.  Also the cases usually have more pre-trial motions and require a separate trial for sentencing.

Incarcerating death row inmates in solitary confinement is also expensive — about $10,000 more a year than inmates serving a life sentence, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.  And, the majority of death penalty trials on appeal are found to be flawed, some significantly, and must be redone, adding to the price tag.

The state has been studying a laundry list of issues since 2011 when lawmakers directed the Joint State Government Commission to research capital punishment.  Berks officials did not know what the costs of trying capital cases are to taxpayers. "Definitely, the death penalty extremely strains our resources," Adams said.  "There's no way that we can put a financial number to that."...

"You can't choose to do it and not pay for," said Marc Bookman, a former public defender and director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation in Philadelphia, a nonprofit resource center.  "It's really expensive to do it properly and it's even more expensive to do it incorrectly," he said.

Last year, Maryland became the 18th state to abolish capital punishment.  Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley cited the cost — roughly three times as much as life without parole — as one of the factors for repealing the death penalty.  John Ramon, author of "The Cost of the Death Penalty in Maryland," said the costs to Pennsylvania taxpayers are likely comparable, assuming trial and incarceration expenses are similar. "It's not as big as an assumption as it sounds," Ramon said....

Knowing the cost, Ramon and others said, changes the conversation on a very polarizing issue. "I think it changes the nature of the debate because what it's saying is let's not just ask if the death penalty is better than not having the death penalty," Ramon said. "It's saying, given the death penalty is far more expensive, is it still worth having?"

December 14, 2014 at 12:03 PM | Permalink


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This entire enterprise is a lawyer scam, from the state that produced the Philadelphia lawyer. Just criminals running their cons, stealing taxpayer money. They show no quarter toward victims and their families. Legislators, appellate judges, defense lawyers, all are just thieves. They are mostly whites. The victims are mostly of dark skin, so no skin off their noses. The consequences all fall on the correct people.

Meanwhile, where they live, the death penalty is at the scene. Try an armed robbery in Montgomery County. The squad cars are there in under 2 minutes, because there is nearly no crime. The three college trained officers emerge blasting. Case closed. Everyone is reminded of that fact when some kid did not get the memo every few years. The lawyers surround their families with crime rates lower than those of Japan or Switzerland. This is hypocrisy taken to a tragic end. No feeling toward the little black girl slammed by bullets skipping rope in front of her home. No feeling for the officer executed by a vicious racist black supremacist killer.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 14, 2014 8:11:39 PM

"For the loved ones of the victims, like Moyer, the financial cost of the death penalty is outweighed by the emotional toll of likely never having the killer's execution carried out."

Is there discretion for victims' families against the death penalty to say they don't agree that executing murderers will do much for them and have this factor into the analysis? If not, why not?

The photo is a take off of "keystone cops" but seems a bit off given seriousness of the topic. YMMV.

Posted by: Joe | Dec 15, 2014 12:27:13 PM

Joe. Some misunderstanding here. The prosecutor represent the public, not the victim. Nor is it for revenge that the family can forswear, in a forgiving mood. In my view it is not a traditional punishment, a consequence that reduces the likelihood of a behavior. The Eighth Amendment does not apply to it, its not being a punishment. It eliminates all behavior by death, not by traumatic avoidance. It is really an expulsion, for someone no longer fit or too dangerous to live among us.

I would not even victim family impact statements. They are unsubstantiated ex parte utterances, not useful, except to inflame. There is no cross examination, nor any verification of damages. For example, the murder victim is a horrible abuser, the family is all better off with his death. They must disclose that fact. The family is deeply grateful to the murderer that they collected a $million in insurance after the murder. I would not want the condemned executed either. There is so much inaccuracy, conflict of interest, and just emotionality that victims views have no validity.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 15, 2014 6:37:20 PM

actually legally and constitutionally your wrong. the DA represents the public, victim, defendant and every other individual in American. His/Her job is the TRUTH. If they are going for anything but that. He/She is a traitor.

Posted by: rodsmith | Dec 16, 2014 12:24:58 AM

I'm aware that the prosecutor represents the public at large. The job of the prosecutor is also not simply "the truth." The prosecutor has certain rules to follow. Simply finding "the truth" is not the only thing there. JUSTICE - as understood by our system of government -- is more appropriately put in caps.

My concern was this:

"For the loved ones of the victims, like Moyer, the financial cost of the death penalty is outweighed by the emotional toll of likely never having the killer's execution carried out."

But, victims' loved ones don't all want the killer carried out. Also, in most cases, criminal homicides don't result in execution any way. This includes many heinous crimes though many victims are quite emotionally broken when loved ones are killed no matter how that happens. Thus, I wondered if those who don't want the person executed -- in fact, they might feel worse if they were -- were handled somehow.

Victim feelings don't really seem the best way to rationally apply the death penalty. I think Payne v. TN was wrong. But, at the very least, those against the death penalty whose loved ones were killed can be factored into the analysis of the "toll" here. Also, if we do allow victim impact statements and such, not only those for the death penalty should matter here. The comment to me seemed to have disparaged a group of victims.

Anyway, yes, public justice is the issue here. In our nation, this was always deemed to warrant only a relatively small subject of murderer to be executed.

Posted by: Joe | Dec 16, 2014 9:38:40 AM

sorry Joe but it's ideals like yours that are part of the problem. The TRUTH is the only thing. Did the accused do it or not! THAT is the only question the DA should be looking to solve. If he's got any other point. Someone needs to blow him away as useless. sorry but justice doesn't come in till you know you have the right person. that is where that NASTY TRUTH comes in.

Posted by: rodsmith | Dec 16, 2014 11:35:21 AM

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