Pennsylvania Puts Death Penalty on Hold

George Lavender

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Pennsylvania’s system is riddled with flaws, making it error prone, expensive and anything but infallible.” That’s according to Tom Wolf, the state’s governor who, as CNN reported, on Friday announced a moratorium on all executions.

Numerous recent studies have called into question the accuracy and fundamental fairness of Pennsylvania’s capital sentencing system,” he said. These studies suggest that inherent biases affect the makeup of death row. While data is incomplete, there are strong indications that a person is more likely to be charged with a capital offense and sentenced to death if he is poor or of a minority racial group, and particularly where the victim of the crime was Caucasian.”

The governor stressed that the impetus was to re-examine a flawed system of justice, and in no way a sentence commutation for the 186 individuals on Pennsylvania’s death row. Continue reading…

Pennsylvania has the fifth largest death row population in the United States, according to the Death Penalty Information Center but like several states has faced difficulty obtaining the drugs used in lethal injections in recent years. An execution last year was postponed because Pennsylvania officials were unable to obtain the necessary drugs. The prisoner, Hubert L Michael Jr., is still on death row at State Correctional Institution Greene.

As Wallace McKelvey writes on PennLive​.com the moratorium comes ahead of the expected publication of a report by a task force set up four years ago to look into the death penalty in Pennsylvania. Among the seven things McKelvey says you should know about the death penalty in the state are:

1 Pennsylvania has seen a major slow-down in executions… . Since 1693, the commonwealth has executed 1,043 prisoners but only three of those have taken place since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977. All three of the inmates who were executed voluntary waived their right to appeal. At the same time, the state has the fifth-highest death row population across the nation, which shows the willingness within the judicial system to hand down the death sentence.

2. …because of a costly, time-consuming process. The death penalty has been criticized for decades for the cost and time required to house inmates and oversee the legal process, which are often tied up with multiple appeals. One 2008 study on the cost of the death penalty in Maryland showed it cost $2 million more to incarcerate and prosecute an inmate who is put to death than it costs to keep one in jail for life. Based on those figures, it would cost a $370 million to see Pennsylvania’s 186 death row inmates through to execution. Continue reading…

Meanwhile in Oregon, Aimee Green writes that there is speculation outgoing Governor John Kitzhaber may commute the sentences of all 33 death row prisoners.

It’s not unprecedented for an outgoing governor to take that bold step.

In 2003, former Illinois Gov. George Ryan made international headlines when he commuted the sentences of more than 150 death row inmates just before leaving office.

Just a few weeks ago, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley granted clemency to the last four inmates on death row one day before his political term was up. O’Malley had previously succeeded in pushing lawmakers to abolish Maryland’s death penalty, so no new inmates were being added to death row. Continue reading…

For more on the recent history of the death penalty, check out the Prison Complex interactive timeline.

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George Lavender is an award-winning radio and print journalist based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @GeorgeLavender.
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