More and more states are moving away from the death penalty. What’s Pa.’s excuse? | Thursday Morning Coffee

January 9, 2020 7:24 am

Good Thursday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

There’s been a lot of important talk — and action — around the Capitol this year on criminal justice reform.

It’s a cause that’s united fiscal conservatives concerned about runaway prison spending; people of faith who believe in the power of redemption and second chances, and social justice reformers who see a system that’s riven by racial and economic bias.

But as much as reformers have shined a badly needed light on probation reform, death by incarceration and the need for a sane and productive pardons system, one topic has remained largely undiscussed. And that’s Pennsylvania’s badly broken, hugely expensive, and entirely ineffective death penalty law.

A tweet Wednesday by Rob Dunham, the former Philadelphia federal defender who now heads the Death Penalty Information Center, reminds us again of the need for lawmakers to jump start the conversation around finally abolishing Pennsylvania’s death penalty.

First, the tweet, then the basis for the argument for abolition.

First up, a few key points: Pennsylvania hasn’t executed anyone since 1999, with the lethal injection of Philadelphia torture-killer Gary Heidnik in Philadelphia. In the last half-century, the state has executed just three people, including Heidnik, all of whom voluntarily waived their appeals.

Shortly after taking office in 2015, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf imposed a moratorium on executions that  remains in place to this day.

Despite that moratorium, prosecutors have continued to pursue capital convictions and the Department of Corrections, constrained by state law, continues to authorize execution warrants that most likely will never be carried out.

All told, 133 people, all of them male, the majority of them Black, now sit on Pennsylvania’s death row, spread across three state prisons. The majority are housed at the state prison in Greene County, according to Pennsylvania Department of Corrections data. The tally is down from 144 prisoners in November 2018.

Again, none have been executed.

Last November, as a the result of a court settlement, Pennsylvania ended its practice of mandatory solitary confinement for death row inmates. The state had begun implementing some of the reforms included in the settlement, which allows inmates to spend more time outside of their cells; outdoor exercise; access to showers and religious services.

When we checked last February, 170 Pennsylvania death-row prisoners had overturned their convictions or death sentences in state or federal post-conviction proceedings.

Pennsylvania’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, according to the DPIC data.

(In red, states with a valid death penalty statute. In blue, the states that have abolished the death penalty. Source: WikiMedia Commons. New Hampshire has since abolished capital punishment)

In 2018, 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 most already know: That the death penalty is unnecessarily expensive, unevenly applied, and unfairly influenced by such factors as geography.

The sprawling and deeply troubling 280-page document also noted, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer “the high number of people with intellectual disability and mental illness on death row — populations that are constitutionally protected from capital punishment. And it found the punishment had been unevenly applied, affected by factors like the race of the victim and the county where the crime occurred.”

The report’s authors concluded that “neither judicial economy nor fairness is served when the more than 97 percent of cases in which death sentences are converted to life sentences or less leave death row only after post-conviction review.”

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 by John L. Micek)

An abolition bill, co-sponsored by the political odd couple of Rep. Chris Rabb, D-Philadelphia, and Frank Ryan, R-Lebanon, is pending in the state House. Their proposal, rolled out April, vanished into the legislative Twilight Zone almost as soon as it was made public. A similar bill is pending in the state Senate.

But it’s been a long time since April. And lawmakers have made serious strides on some criminal justice reform measures since. Those bottling up an abolition bill will need to make a better argument than a mere “No.”

“No study shows it’s a deterrent,” Rabb said last spring. “Plenty of studies show that it is racist.”

The evidence is piling up that society’s ultimate punishment is broken. And with more states moving away from executions, Pennsylvania lawmakers, who hate being on those list of loser states, have a real choice to make.

Our Stuff.
Elizabeth Hardison
 sweeps in for the scoop: Former 10th Congressional District candidate George Scott has left York County, taken up residency in Harrisburg, and will mount a Democratic run for state Senate against Republican John DiSanto in Dauphin County’s 15th District.

U.S. Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., each shared their take on escalating American tensions with Iran and the prospect of war with the Islamic republic.

Stephen Caruso swung by a House Agriculture Committee meeting on the implementation of the sprawling Pa. Farm Bill that was signed into law last year.

Pennsylvania still has some work to do to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, environmental experts told a state Senate panel Wednesday, Hardison also reports.

County officials from across the 13-state Appalachian region that includes Pennsylvania spent a year talking about their efforts to curb opioid abuse. Earlier this week, they rolled out the results of that work. The conclusion: The cost of the epidemic has been dear. And it will take a while to recover.

After a long absence, the Numbers Racket returns, as Associate Editor Cassie Miller takes a very Farm Show-appropriate look at what Pennsylvania farmers are growing these days.

From our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune: State Sen. Art Haywood, D-Philadelphia, says he wants to spend his 2020 righting some historic injustices. And you can expect voting rights and the Census to take center stage during this year’s MLK Day of Service observances in the state’s largest city.

And on our Commentary Page, a Dartmouth College professor looks at the up and downsides of free community college.

(Dsw4/WikiMedia Commons)

When they drew Pennsylvania’s congressional maps, Republicans got ‘greedy,’ the Inquirer reports, citing newly released documents.
Allegheny County is the ‘epicenter’ of flu season in Pennsylvania, the Post-Gazette reports.
Sixty-three people, who ranged in age from 77 years to just 11 months old, lost their lives to violence in central Pennsylvania last year, PennLive reports.
The Morning Call has the latest on transportation planning for the future of the Lehigh Valley. 

Here’s your #Pennsylvania Instagram of the Day:

WHYY-FM explains how Philadelphia ‘lost the war on litter.’
Pennsylvania Democrats are pushing to shore up health coverage if the Affordable Care Act is struck down, WITF-FM reports.
The U.S. House will vote on a war powers resolution on Thursday, Roll Call reports.

What Goes On.
The House and Senate Democratic Policy committees hold a joint hearing on net neutrality at 11:30 a.m. at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

Gov. Tom Wolf
 has no public schedule today.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out this morning to longtime reader and supporter, Mandy Fleischer Nace, of Philadelphia, who celebrates today. Congratulations and enjoy the day.

Heavy Rotation.
Here’s some new music from English rapper Stormzy, where he takes a whack at grime legend Wiley. The track: “Still Disappointed.”

Thursday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link. 
Winnipeg edged out Toronto 4-3 in a shootout on Wednesday night. Despite the loss, the Leafs’ Austen Matthews became the first American-born player to score 30 goals in each of his first four seasons.

And now you’re up to date.

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