‘Innocence is real:’ A death row survivor makes the case for scrapping capital punishment in Pa. | Opinion

April 30, 2019 2:28 pm

State Rep. Chris Rabb, D-Philadelphia, speaks at a Capitol news conference on House and Senate proposals to abolish the death penalty in Pennsylvania (Capital-Star photo).

You don’t need to tell Kirk Bloodsworth about the unjustness of the death penalty. He’s lived it.

The Baltimore County, Md., man spent nine years in prison, two of them on death row, after he was wrongly convicted in the murder of a nine-year-old girl in 1984. The 58-year-old former Marine was the first American death row inmate to be exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing. Bloodsworth was released from prison in 1993, and he was fully exonerated in 2004.

“Innocence is real. Innocence is so real,” Bloodsworth said Tuesday, as he spoke on behalf of House and Senate proposals that would finally abolish Pennsylvania’s long-broken and antiquated death penalty law. “There are 165 death row exonerees in America who have been found in our death row system.”

One of them was standing just a few feet to Bloodsworth’s right on the stage in the Capitol Media Center.

James Dennis, of Philadelphia, spent 25 years on death row, until he was let out of prison in 2013. As a condition of his release, he had to agree to prosecutors’ demands that he plead “no contest” to the 1991 death of a 17-year-old schoolgirl, NBC News reported.

“You take the risk of killing an innocent woman or man,” Dennis, a 48-year-old former musician, said. “It could have been me. It could be any one of you out there.”

If Dennis’ were an isolated instance, you might — might — almost be able to make a case for keeping the death penalty on the books, to argue that the system worked because, after decades behind bars, that he (and Bloodsworth, too) was found innocent of the charges against him.

But he’s not an isolated case. Not even close. Yet Pennsylvania, for some reason, still insists on sending people to death row.

Largely because of reversals and resentencings, Pennsylvania’s death row population has fallen over the last 16 years, going from 247 inmates in April 2002 to the current 142 inmates, according to data compiled by the Death Row Information Center.

In all, 170 Pennsylvania death-row prisoners have seen their convictions or death sentences overturned in state or federal post-conviction proceedings. The commonwealth’s state courts have reversed an additional 100 death sentences on direct appeal, according to Death Penalty Information Center data. More than 97 percent of the state’s death row inmates have been resentenced to life or less, or acquitted.

Pennsylvania has executed just three people in the last six decades. The most recent came in 1999, when Philadelphia torture-killer Gary Heidnik was put to death in Rockview State Prison in Centre County. Like the two inmates sent to the death chamber before him, Heidnik waived his appeals.

In 2015, shortly after taking office, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf imposed a moratorium on executions that remains in place four years later. Last year, a death penalty study panel, authorized under a 2011 state Senate resolution, released its long-awaited report on the state of capital punishment in Pennsylvania.

It reinforced what we already know: The death penalty is unnecessarily expensive, unevenly applied, and unfairly influenced by such factors as race and income.

Yet, the machinery of death continues to grind on and prosecutors continue to seek the death penalty in cases where the accused will, more than likely, never be executed. That includes Eric Frein, who was convicted in the 2014 ambush slaying of a Pennsylvania State Police trooper. The state Supreme Court on Monday upheld Frein’s sentence, despite Wolf’s ongoing moratorium.

For state Rep. Chris Rabb, the Philadelphia Democrat who’s sponsoring the House version of the repeal bill, the reality that, at a time of tightening budgets, Pennsylvania and other states are spending millions of dollars they don’t have on costly death penalty cases just doesn’t make sense.

And that’s quite apart from clear evidence of racial bias in capital cases.

“We’re approaching budget season, where we’re pinching pennies,” Rabb said, arguing the state could find far better ways to use the money it spends feeding and housing death row inmates and fighting their appeals. “No study shows it’s a deterrent. Plenty of studies show that it is racist.”

In a memo seeking co-sponsors for his yet-to-be introduced proposal, Rabb reiterated that economic argument, saying Pennsylvania’s last three executions “cost the taxpayers $816 million.”

“Additionally, the Urban Institute’s study on the cost of the death penalty in Maryland estimates a death penalty case costs $2 million more than a non-death penalty case. We believe this to be an irresponsible use of our state’s limited resources,” Rabb wrote.

Rabb has found an ally in state Rep. Frank Ryan, a Lebanon County Republican and tax-and-spending hawk who’s among the General Assembly’s most conservative members.

Ryan’s brother lives in Rabb’s district, and the two lawmakers have forged a close friendship, Ryan said in a phone interview. They both say they’re committed to proving that Democrats and Republicans, who harbor very different views, can still reach agreement on key issues.

For Ryan, the argument for abolishing the death penalty is both practical and moral.

“I’m pro-life, which means conception to natural death,” he said. “Capital punishment isn’t natural death to me.”

Indeed, criminal justice reform is one area where civil justice-minded progressives and fiscal conservatives have managed to find common ground, both in Pennsylvania and nationwide. Through sentencing reform and other measures, the Keystone State is viewed as a national leader.

So far, capital punishment hasn’t been part of that conversation. But the House and Senate bills are evidence that could change. It’ll take work — and plenty of convincing.

State Sen. Katie Muth, of Berks County, is one of the co-sponsors of the Senate version of the bill. The freshman Democrat has emerged as a forceful advocate for survivors of sexual assault and abuse, as well as workplace harassment.

Muth said Tuesday that she saw no contradiction between advocating for survivors while pursuing fairness and reform in the criminal justice system.

“As a victim, I think you would get great peace” from knowing the right person is being punished for the crime for which they’ve been convicted, she said.

Bloodsworth now leads Witness to Innocence, a nonprofit run by exonerated death row inmates and their families that supports capital punishment abolition efforts nationwide. On Tuesday, he rattled off a list of people, both men and women, who had been freed from death row.

“I could stand here and talk to you about innocent men and women all day,” he said.

Hopefully, he won’t have to do that much longer.

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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.