Sunday, July 21, 2019

GateHouse: Death penalty may have its day in court

Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse Media
July 19, 2019
The death penalty is a bundle of contradictions that promotes both support and opposition to its continued use.
The support for the death penalty as an effective deterrent has all but disappeared. The rarity of imposition and the handful of times each year that it is carried out mutes any impact the death penalty has on crime.
Pennsylvania may be the next major battleground for the death penalty. This week, in an extraordinary move by Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, his office filed a brief with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in support of a claim by two death row inmates that the death penalty in Pennsylvania violates the Eighth Amendment to the United State Constitution.
Krasner, whose opposition to the death penalty was a major component of his 2017 upset DA victory, now joins a small group of prosecutors from across the country - including the Boulder County, Colorado District Attorney, Orlando, Florida States Attorney and King County, Washington Prosecuting Attorney - who have called for their states to abolish the death penalty, reported the Huffington Post.
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office based its position on a review of every case where a Philadelphia defendant received a death sentence between 1978 and 2017. The study found that 72 percent of those 155 sentences were ultimately overturned - more than half of them for ineffective assistance counsel.
Pennsylvania is one of 30 states that has the death penalty, although Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf four years ago announced a temporary halt on executions in one of his first acts as governor. The moratorium still stands.
Since 1978, three men have been executed in Pennsylvania. Gary Heidnik, convicted of killing of two women he imprisoned in his Philadelphia home, was the last person put to death in the state, in 1999.
The current appeal has attracted support from groups like the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
It is not just progressives who want to see the end to the death penalty in Pennsylvania. Hannah Cox, National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, suggested, “Conservatives in Pennsylvania and across the country increasingly realize the death penalty is a failed government program that threatens innocent people and is marred by racial disparities, as well as inconsistency in how it has been used.”
The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association is alright with the death penalty. “If the death penalty is abolished, that would have a very real effect on a limited number of cases - which happen to be the most heinous cases,” said Greg Rowe, legislation and policy director for the PDAA. The Pennsylvania attorney general, the Philadelphia chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, and several groups of Republican state lawmakers filed briefs in support of the death penalty.
If racial disparities and poor lawyering are not enough to oppose the death penalty, those supporting the end to the death penalty have more to argue. In 2016, The Reading Eagle reported that Pennsylvania paid an estimated $816 million on the death penalty since 1978.
The Juvenile Law Center and Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project cites impetuosity and susceptibility to negative peer influences for 18- to 25-year-olds - who make up over one third of Pennsylvania’s current death row - as evidence of the overall arbitrary and disproportionate nature of Pennsylvania’s death penalty.
Quinn Cozzens, an attorney with the Pennsylvania-based Abolitionist Law Center, argues that that the death penalty can be unfairly “used as a tool” in the plea bargaining process. “They’re able to hang that over the heads of defendants,” Cozzens said.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court may soon have a say whether the death penalty is fine as it is, needs repaired or ended.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.
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