Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Morning Call: Attention turns to obscure state committee studying death penalty

Riley Yates
The Morning Call
The committee hasn't met since 2012 and is running at least two years behind schedule. Its 27 members haven't been publicly announced, but critics already charge they have leaped to conclusions.
The state Senate's Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment has until recently been little noticed, just the latest group to study flaws in Pennsylvania's death penalty, under which scores of inmates have seen their sentences reversed and no one has been executed against their will since John F. Kennedy was president.
Once obscure, the all-volunteer committee is now prominent, elevated in the debate by Gov. Tom Wolf's moratorium on executions. Wolf announced the moratorium in February when he called the death penalty "error prone, expensive and anything but infallible." He said he will issue a reprieve to any prisoner facing the death chamber until the committee's report is released and acted upon.
That means the panel could wield enormous power in determining the future of capital punishment in Pennsylvania, which houses the nation's fifth largest death row. And while previous investigations have suggested fixes to the process to make it fairer, some death penalty backers are bracing — and some opponents are hoping — for this committee to call for the law's outright repeal.
"That would not surprise me," said Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico, a committee member who supports the death penalty. "That is probably where this would end up."
"I suspect that they will support the abolition of the death penalty," said Carol Lavery, Pennsylvania's former victims advocate and another committee member.
The committee, approved by the Senate in 2011, is looking into 17 different 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.
Glenn Pasewicz, executive director of the Joint State Government Commission, the agency spearheading the effort, does not anticipate the report will be "the seminal document that starts rolling forward with repeal."Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, a Montgomery County Republican who proposed the study, echoed that, saying the committee has not been asked to weigh in on the larger question of whether the death penalty should be sustained. That's an issue, he maintained, for lawmakers and public opinion to decide.
"I don't think it does anyone any good to spend all this time and this effort on the data without giving anyone an opinion on what the data means," said Leach, a staunch critic of capital punishment.
Since Wolf announced the moratorium, conservative lawmakers and other death penalty supporters have bristled over the committee's makeup, charging it is weighed against their views.
According to a list provided by the Joint Commission, the panel includes judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, clergy members, college professors, a relative of a murder victim, victims advocates, officials from the ACLU and two other nonprofits, and police and corrections representatives.
"There's very few prosecutors or individuals who favor the death penalty on the committee as a whole," Marsico said, "so I don't expect a glowing review of the death penalty because of the makeup of it."
Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli, a vocal death penalty supporter who is not on the panel, charged that further studies are unnecessary and are driven by opponents who want to poke holes in the law.
Morganelli said the best review that death sentences receive is through the courts, when a jury individually examines the facts of each case and appellate judges then scrutinize whether the decisions were justified.
"These studies are a bunch of nonsense in my opinion," said Morganelli, a Democrat. "They are motivated by a desire to end the death penalty. They don't want to improve the death penalty."
Greenleaf and Leach disputed that criticism, saying that no one should oppose efforts to better understand how the system is functioning.
"Anyone who is for or against [capital punishment] should not be afraid of facts," Greenleaf said. A fact "doesn't lie. Whatever it is, it is."
Said Leach: "At the end of the day, the death penalty is another government program, so let's evaluate it like any other government program."
The report was originally due in December 2013. But selecting the panel's 27 participants took six months alone, and work has proven time-consuming, 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, Pasewicz said.
The hope is for the report to be completed by the end of the year, though it could stretch into 2016, Pasewicz said.
So far, the committee has met twice as a whole, in May and August 2012, according to the Joint Commission. The panel's subcommittees have held two meetings and 15 teleconferences, the most recent in April 2014.
For the report, the Joint Commission — a research wing of the Legislature — has been assisted by a state commission on fairness in the courts and by researchers from Penn State University.
The study has no individual budget and no dedicated staff members, with the Joint Commission's 11 employees also juggling other state initiatives, Pasewicz said. Though the Senate resolution authorized the panel to conduct public hearings, it has no plans to do so, since the Joint Commission is not set up to hold them and lacks the power to subpoena witnesses or take testimony under oath, he said.
Pasewicz said he anticipates hearings will be held in the Legislature after the recommendations are released.
Given the contentious topic, Pasewicz said he doesn't expect unanimity from the panel. But, he said, everyone on the committee will be heard, pro or con.
"It is a controversial issue. We want to make sure we have as many people at the meetings, at the conference calls, as we can," Pasewicz said. "We've been unusually sensitive to make sure that people were available and had a fair opportunity to participate."
That's the hope of Lavery, the former victims advocate. She said that while she believes the committee is weighed against the death penalty, she expects it will still offer detailed information that can be used on each side of the debate.
"The facts that will come out will be both in support and against," Lavery said.
Matthew Mangino, another committee member, called the study a "fresh look" and said the panel has yet to reach its conclusions.
"As in any aspect of the criminal justice system, there is always room for improvement in the process," said Mangino, a former Lawrence County district attorney who has written a book about the death penalty. "Can we improve the process, or should the process be halted? I think that those are legitimate questions for any task force that is examining the criminal justice system."
One of the four senators on the task force overseeing the committee is Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton. Several attempts to seek comment from her were unsuccessful.
'Riddled with flaws'
Pennsylvania has 185 prisoners on death row, but it rarely performs an execution. 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.
The reasons for the logjam are the subject of heated discussion. Capital punishment supporters blame an arduous appeals process, activist judges and what they characterize as overzealous tactics by anti-death-penalty lawyers.
Former Chief Justice Ronald Castille, who retired at the end of last year, has been the most prominent voice. In a 2011 opinion, he accused federal public defenders of "obstructionist tactics" that try to sabotage Pennsylvania's law through abusive filings that clog the courts.
Whether opponents "like it or not," two-thirds of the states have the death penalty, Castille wrote. "The difference of death does not mean that any and all tactics in pursuit of the defeat of a capital judgment are legitimate."
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