Pa. Supreme Court asked to throw out death penalty

Crit­ics say penalty is cru­elly, ar­bi­trar­ily applied to poor and black de­fen­dants.


PHILADEL­PHIA — The Penn­syl­va­nia Supreme Court was asked Wed­nes­day to out­law the death penalty be­cause of what crit­ics call the cruel and ar­bi­trary way it’s applied to poor and black de­fen­dants.

More than half of the 441 death sen­tences handed down since the death penalty was re­in­stated in the late 1970s have been deemed flawed and over­turned, As­sis­tant Fed­eral De­fender Ti­mothy Kane told the court. Among the 155 from Philadel­phia, the re­ver­sal rate is 72 per­cent.

“The re­li­a­bil­ity of the sys­tem as a whole is cruel . and the sys­temic prob­lems af­fect ev­ery case,” Kane ar­gued be­fore an over­flow crowd at Philadel­phia City Hall.

Most of the time, the sen­tence or verdict was re­versed on ap­peal be­cause of the work of court-ap­pointed lawyers work­ing with lim­ited pub­lic funds, he said.

In the two test cases in­volved in the un­usual “King’s Bench” pe­ti­tion pre­sented to the Supreme Court, tran­scripts of the de­fense por­tion of their sen­tenc­ing hear­ings run to just 14 pages com­bined.

Jus­tice De­bra Todd asked why the is­sue was ur­gent, given the mora­to­rium on ex­e­cu­tions that Demo­cratic Gov. Tom Wolf im­posed af­ter tak­ing of­fice in 2015. A lawyer for At­tor­ney Gen­eral Josh Shapiro, who op­posed the pe­ti­tion, said it was not. Shapiro’s of­fice said that any amend­ments to the death penalty should be de­cided by the state Leg­is­la­ture, which is­sued a trou­bling re­port on the is­sue last year.

“The ques­tions the re­port raises are im­por­tant, and should be thor­oughly con­sid­ered and re­solved, by the Gen­eral Assem­bly,” Shapiro’s of­fice said in its brief.

How­ever, Kane said the Supreme Court needs to step in given the fail­ure of law­mak­ers to act on the bi­par­ti­san re­view. He asked the court to de­clare the state statute un­con­sti­tu­tional and con­vert the sen­tences of 137 men on death row to life im­pris­on­ment. There are no women on death row in Penn­syl­va­nia.

Philadel­phia Dis­trict At­tor­ney Larry Kras­ner, who won elec­tion in 2015 on an anti-death penalty plat­form, said that 82 per­cent of the cur­rent death row in­mates from Philadel­phia are black.

Statewide, just un­der half of the cur­rent death row in­mates in Penn­syl­va­nia are black, com­pared to 11% of state res­i­dents. The death penalty re­mains le­gal in 29 U.S. states, although four of those states, in­clud­ing Penn­syl­va­nia, have a mora­to­rium on ex­e­cu­tions.

The av­er­age ap­peal in Penn­syl­va­nia takes 17 years, strain­ing the re­sources of the court sys­tem, crit­ics said.

The five Democrats and two Repub­li­cans on the state Supreme Court did not in­di­cate when they would rule.

Matt rourke / As­so­ci­ated Press

A crowd waits to en­ter the Penn­syl­va­nia Supreme Court at City Hall in Philadel­phia on Wed­nes­day.

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