The Lead

ACLU asks Pa. Supreme Court to declare the death penalty unconstitutional

By: - February 22, 2019 4:24 pm

The Pennsylvania branch of the American Civil Liberties Union has asked the state’s highest court to declare the Keystone State’s death penalty statute unconstitutional, arguing that it violates equal protection provisions because of “the vast disparities across the commonwealth in the quality of representation for capital case defendants who are unable to pay.”

Right now, Pennsylvania is the only state in the country that does not provide state funding for indigent defendants, which means the costs fall back on counties, “resulting in the highest disparity in capital sentences between counties of any state in the country,” the ACLU-PA said in a statement Friday. 

“The burden of these disparities falls disproportionately on the state’s most vulnerable populations, particularly people of color and the poor,” the ACLU-PA observed in its statement. “People of color make up more than half of the state’s death row population. Stories in the brief include those of defendants who were represented by lawyers who were drunk, extremely overburdened, or otherwise ill-equipped to defend capital cases.”

The request was filed as a friend of the court brief in a case now before the high court’s eastern district in Philadelphia.

According to the ACLU-PA, more than a third of the death sentences imposed since the state reinstated capital punishment in 1978 have been reversed because of poor representation. Despite being highlighted as a problem for decades, the issue has not been addressed, the group said.

“Pennsylvania’s condemned prisoners have not received the death penalty for committing the most heinous crimes or for being the most culpable offenders, but because they had deplorable representation,” the brief reads.

Pennsylvania has not executed a condemned prisoner since 1999. In 2015, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf imposed a moratorium on executions until a study commission returned its findings on the state of capital punishment in Pennsylvania.

That panel eventually found the the death penalty in Pennsylvania is unnecessarily expensive, unevenly applied, and unfairly influenced by such factors as geography.

The Legislature has failed to address the problems with capital punishment in Pennsylvania, despite the recommendations of every group that has ever looked at it,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU-PA. “We can’t wait for the Legislature to fix this unconstitutional system. The court needs to act.”

Given the “well-documented flaws with the death penalty nationwide — from racial bias to arbitrary application, and the execution of innocent people — it’s time for the United States to abolish it,” Anna Arceneaux, senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, said.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.