« "Mitigations: The Forgotten Side of the Proportionality Principle" | Main | Notable new materials from the Drug Policy Alliance on drug decriminalization in Portugal »

March 2, 2019

Spotlighting the role of prosecutors as the death penalty fades away in Pennsylvania

Mc-1551374127-s7rtr2h4xf-snap-imageThis lengthy local article, headlined "Death penalty has fallen out of favor with Pennsylvania prosecutors," reports on the steady decline in capital prosecutions and death sentences in the Keystone state in recent decades. Here are excerpts:

Pennsylvania’s death penalty is, by all accounts, embattled.  There hasn’t been an execution in two decades, even before Gov. Tom Wolf imposed a moratorium on them in 2015. The courts have long scrutinized death sentences, throwing out scores of them at appeal.  And juries have become more hesitant to impose the state’s ultimate punishment.  A long-awaited legislative study recently called for a host of reforms.

But a surprising factor is quietly contributing to the death penalty’s decline in Pennsylvania: Prosecutors are increasingly reluctant to pursue capital murder charges, given the high financial cost and lengthy legal battles they guarantee, and the improbability the sentences will ultimately be carried out.

In 2004, 40 percent of murder convictions in Pennsylvania started as death-penalty cases, according to a review of state data by The Morning Call.  By 2017, that number had dropped more than threefold, to 12 percent of murder convictions, the lowest rate in 14 years....

The Morning Call’s figures offer a first accounting of the waning frequency with which the state’s 67 elected district attorneys pursue capital punishment, data that state government does not track.  For its analysis, the newspaper reviewed 4,184 murder convictions in Pennsylvania from 2004 to 2017, using docket sheets, appellate court records and local media accounts to determine whether they were ever listed as capital cases....

The findings showed that in 2004, there were 309 murder convictions statewide, of which 123 started as death-penalty prosecutions.  In 2017, there were 271 murder convictions, of which 33 saw the filing of capital charges.

The downward trend held generally year to year, though there were occasional bumps.  It was driven by Philadelphia, which has long dominated Pennsylvania’s death-penalty cases, but was also seen in the rest of the state, though some individual counties such as Bucks, Chester and Lancaster saw little or no change.  And the numbers should only fall further in the coming years, amid the tenure of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, a self-described progressive who took office in 2018 vowing to never pursue the death penalty....

Death sentences are falling across the nation, said Robert Dunham, a former federal public defender in Pennsylvania who now heads the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit.  “Pennsylvania reflects that pattern,” Dunham said. “What we’re seeing is that prosecutors have realized these cases are likely to not result in a death sentence.”...

Amid that, the governor’s moratorium remains in effect, with little movement in the Legislature to take up capital punishment.  Wolf tied his decision to a Senate-commissioned report on the death penalty, a long-delayed study that was released in June after seven years of preparation.  The report offered a raft of potential reforms, including calls for a state-funded capital defender’s office, and more protections to prevent the execution of the mentally ill and intellectually disabled.

Wolf will continue blocking executions until the death penalty’s problems are corrected, said J.J. Abbott, a spokesman for the governor.  “He looks forward to working with the General Assembly on their plans to address the report and its recommendations for legislative changes, all of which he believes should be debated and considered,” Abbott said in a prepared statement.

Whether there is momentum to take up the death penalty — either to repeal it or to fix it with an eye to resuming executions — remains unclear.

State Rep. Rob Kauffman, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he is open to re-examining capital punishment, considering its cost to taxpayers and the lack of executions.  But he said it just isn’t a big topic in Harrisburg.  “There’s a lot that has been talked about regarding criminal justice reform, but this is not one of those front-burner issues,” said Kauffman, R-Franklin.

In the meantime, the number of inmates on death row continues to fall, as do the number of new death sentences.  In 2018, juries added only one killer to death row in Pennsylvania.

March 2, 2019 at 11:42 PM | Permalink


In a message dated 3/1/2019 10:02:14 AM Eastern Standard Time, sharpjfa@aol.com writes:

To: Riley Yates, reporter, The Morning Call

RE: Death penalty has fallen out of favor with Pennsylvania prosecutors, Riley Yates, The Morning Call, 2/28/19

From: Dudley Sharp. pro death penalty expert, former opponent

Dear Riley:

Why would Pa. prosecutors seek the death penalty? Really. Why?

They know Pa judges will not allow executions. You could say that Pa judges are, intentionally, killing the death penalty and you would be correct.

Why would prosecutors seek the death penalty when Pa judges have, never, allowed an execution, after the end of appeals, but only 3 executions when the murderers chose to waive appeals and request execution, over a 45 year period?

Gov. Wolf just made official what the judges had been, obviously, doing for decades.

Is this a secret?

Since 1976, Virginia has executed 112 murderers within 7 years of full appeals. Virginia's last execution was after 5 years of full appeals. How? Responsible management. Pretty basic. The judges are the case managers.

IF Pa. judges were in charge of ruling on abortion requests or on pot hole fixes (see The Onion), and acted in this fashion, the media and citizens would be outraged and demanding hearings and firings of the judges. Yes?

Read below, for more.

Sincerely, Dudley Sharp, pro death penalty expert

Judges Responsible For Grossly Uneven Executions

Judges as Jackasses

Posted by: Dudley Sharp | Mar 3, 2019 6:31:37 AM

Choices depend on likely outcomes.

In many states, it can take almost two decades to carry out a death sentence (if you can ever carry out a death sentence). Under those conditions, death and lwop are essentially the same outcome. And the current extra procedures surrounding the death penalty require prosecutors to expend a lot of resources to get and keep a death sentence. Under those conditions, a lot of prosecutors are deciding that the benefits to the public of getting a nominal death sentence do not outweigh the costs.

However, things are changing. Many of the same folks who opposed the death penalty are trying to get rid of life without parole (either by expressly removing it or through the backdoor of a separate statute saying that, notwithstanding the "without parole" language in the sentencing statute, inmates serving an lwop sentence can still be granted parole). Simultaneously, they are trying to get rid of the parole restrictions on potential lesser charges as well. If the options are a nominal death sentence (for practical purposes an lwop sentence) or eligibility for release in 10-15 years, the extra effort to get death may start making sense again.

Posted by: tmm | Mar 4, 2019 2:33:55 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB