Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Cautionary Instruction: The slow undoing of the death penalty

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
July 8, 2011

An Allegheny County jury deliberated for less than two hours before sentencing Richard Poplawski to death for the ambush killings of Pittsburgh police officers Paul J. Sciullo II, Stephen J. Mayhle and Eric G. Kelly.
The courtroom was packed when the jury returned the verdicts, including about 30 uniformed police officers. After the verdicts, Poplawski was escorted by sheriff's deputies around the entire perimeter of the third floor of the courthouse, which was lined by more than 100 police officers.
The Post-Gazette reported that, “The promenade and demonstration of force was clearly an organized effort.” The Poplawski verdict was welcome news to law enforcement and the community at large, but what does a death sentence really mean in Pennsylvania?
There are 213 men and women on Pennsylvania’s death row. The commonwealth has carried out three executions since 1978. Realistically, there is little likelihood that Poplawski will die by lethal injection.
Poplawski’s death sentence is actually a bit of an anomaly. The trend in Pennsylvania, and across the country, appears to be moving away from death sentences. In 2010, there were only three death sentences handed down across the entire commonwealth. Only 114 across the country, the second lowest number since the death penalty was reinstated. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, an anti-death penalty organization, Pennsylvania imposed only 22 death sentences between 2007 and 2010.
A Philadelphia Inquirer analysis of almost 2,000 Pennsylvania homicide cases filed between January 1, 2007 and February 3, 2010 showed that just 3 percent of first-degree murder cases tried to a verdict ended in a death sentence.
Yet, in spite of those numbers Westmoreland County faces a series of high profile capital murder trials. Three of the Greensburg 6 will face death-qualified juries beginning in September.
Some of the defendants in the Jennifer Daugherty torture-murder case illustrate the U.S. Supreme Court’s methodical dismantling of the death penalty.
Angela Marinucci was a juvenile when Daugherty was murdered. Although she was tried as an adult, the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roper v. Simmons prohibited her from facing the death penalty. Marinucci was convicted in May and faces life in prison.
Another defendant, Ricky Smyrnes reportedly has an IQ of 67. In 2002, the Supreme Court in Atkins v. Virginia held that the execution of the mentally retarded is cruel and unusual punishment. He, too, will seek to avoid the death penalty.

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