Editorial

The Observer-Reporter building in Washington

We’ve learned by watching our governments in action that if you really want to complete an evaluation of an issue in the longest amount of time possible, appoint a committee to study it.

It was seven years ago that the state Senate set up a task force to analyze capital punishment in Pennsylvania. The panel’s report, issued earlier this week, really didn’t tell us anything that we couldn’t have figured out seven years ago on our own.

Basically, the death penalty system in Pennsylvania is a real mess. That, we knew.

As Kathleen Lucas, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, aptly put it, “The taxpayers of Pennsylvania are spending hundreds of millions of dollars for a death penalty system that doesn’t work and hasn’t resulted in an execution for 20 years.”

Monday’s report from the Joint State Government Commission made a number of recommendations. As outlined in a story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, they include:

  • Creating a state-funded capital defender office to represent people at trial and on appeal in death penalty cases;
  • Disqualifying a person with mental illness from facing the death penalty;
  • Requiring that a judge determine before trial whether a defendant is intellectually disabled, which would exempt them from capital punishment.

State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, a Republican from Montgomery County, was the author of the resolution that spawned the study in 2011. He noted in comments to the P-G that since 1978, six death-row inmates have been cleared of the charges that led to them being condemned. Over the past 56 years, the state has executed just three people, despite more than 450 death warrants being signed.

“I don’t know if the votes are there in the General Assembly to abolish the death penalty, but there are certain things we can do to ensure that no innocent person is condemned to die,” said Greenleaf.

“Ensure” is too strong a word. Steps certainly can be taken to make it less likely that someone would be wrongly convicted and sentenced to capital punishment, but as long as humans are involved in the legal process, there’s no certainty that a deadly mistake will never again be made.

Opponents of capital punishment used the report as fuel for their drive to do away with the death penalty in the state.

“It’s impossible to read this report and not come away thinking that a life-without-parole sentence would be fairer, quicker and more cost-efficient than capital punishment,” Marc Bookman, co-director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, told the P-G. “Many people will conclude that having a death penalty in Pennsylvania simply doesn’t make sense for moral, practical or financial reasons. For those who still think it’s worthwhile to keep it in place, the study documents the extensive work necessary to satisfy the constitutional requirement of fairness and due process, while minimizing the chances of error.”

One of those who thinks maintaining a death penalty is worthwhile is Richard Long, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, who said capital punishment is a tool needed by prosecutors.

“The committee that issued the report was largely comprised of anti-death penalty advocates, and it appears that its findings restate the usual litany of opinions held by death penalty opponents,” he told the newspaper.

If we are going to continue to have a death penalty in Pennsylvania, and there are viable arguments to be made on either side of the issue, then it is imperative that the entire system be overhauled, using some of the committee’s recommendations.

It should go without saying that the state should not be executing the mentally ill and those with mental disabilities. It’s also a given that the quality of representation received by criminal defendants in this state, including those facing death-penalty prosecutions, varies widely. Creating a well-funded office dedicated to the defense of those facing the death penalty is critical if there is to be any sense of fairness.

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