Fewer than 2 percent of Pennsylvania's roughly 25,000 homicides the past four decades have resulted in a death sentence, a Reading Eagle examination has found, part of an ongoing series on the death penalty.
While roughly two-thirds of the commonwealth's counties have sentenced at least one person to death since 1978, Sixty percent of those sentences come from four counties: Philadelphia, Allegheny, York and Berks. And, almost two dozen counties have not sentenced anyone to death.
The findings suggest a far-from-even application of the death penalty in Pennsylvania.
In addition,there have been three executions in Pennsylvania since 1976 and all three "volunteered" to be executed.
"The idea here isn't that we reserve the death penalty for the really, really bad cases," said John Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute who evaluates criminal justice programs. "We use the death penalty in places where it's politically viable."
Death penalty statutes that states, including Pennsylvania, created in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's 1972 decision finding capital punishment unconstitutional as implemented, were intended to make its application - particularly for black defendants - less arbitrary.
Researchers who study capital punishment, though, said the Eagle's findings show the wide discretion prosecutors have in whether to seek a death sentence.
The district attorneys the Eagle spoke to had a mixed reaction to the data. Some said their discretion should be expected, saying the public elects them to make those tough decisions while others said they didn't know what to make of the findings.
There have been 24,942 homicides across the commonwealth from 1978 through 2014, the latest data available from state police. In that time, the commonwealth has sentenced 408 people to death, at a rate of 1.6 death sentences for every 100 homicides.
To identify the rate, the Eagle spent more than five months compiling a comprehensive list of inmates sentenced to death since capital punishment was reinstated in 1978. The database was also used to analyze the death penalty's cost to taxpayers, estimated at more than $800 million.
To read more of series CLICK HERE