Why Pennsylvania Doesn’t Need the Death Penalty

With just three executions in 34 years, we're not using capital punishment anyway

Last week the nation’s highest court chose not to hear an appeal filed by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office that sought to reinstate the death sentence of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted in 1982 of murdering Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. The ruling comes nearly a full decade after a U.S. District Court judge first vacated the sentence in light of prejudicial jury instructions, and just months after the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision following an order to reconsider from the Supreme Court.

It’s now up to District Attorney Seth Williams to decide whether to pursue a new sentencing hearing for Abu-Jamal, a process that would not only dredge up painful memories for the victim’s widow, but is destined to take place in an atmosphere very different than that of three decades ago, when the original sentence was levied.

In 1982, the year of Abu-Jamal’s conviction, capital punishment was overwhelmingly popular in the United States, with nearly three-quarters of Americans favoring it. Since then support for the death penalty has fallen across all segments of society, even among groups that represent the families of victims.

Two days after the Supreme Court decision on October 13th, Gallup released new poll numbers indicating that support for the death penalty is at its lowest level in 40 years. While a majority (61 percent) of American citizens still support it in cases of murder, evidence shows the impetus is emotional (revenge-based) and not practical. Barely a third believe capital punishment is a deterrent to future crimes. And contrary to popular belief, victims’ families rarely get a sense of closure after executions; quite the opposite, families report that the endless appeals process and decades of legal wrangling in death-penalty cases only serve to prolong their pain and more often prevent closure.

Meanwhile, since exonerations tied to DNA evidence began in 1989,  jurors have become increasingly reluctant to hand down death sentences, which have fallen to an historic low (even Texas only saw eight people added to its death row last year, compared to 48 in 2000).  Just 12 states carried out an execution in 2010 and only seven states carried out more than one (Texas, which still leads the nation in state-sanctioned killing, oversaw 17 executions last year and 11 so far in 2011.) Over the past four years, four states have abolished the death penalty and nationwide executions and death sentences have fallen by half since 2000.

Those, like myself, who oppose capital punishment on moral grounds will be happy to know that despite being on the books in 34 states, capital punishment is becoming a rarity across most of the country. Yet that is little consolation for the more than 3,200 people awaiting execution across the nation—which brings us to Pennsylvania.

With 208 men and women awaiting execution in three state facilities (Greene, Graterford and Muncy), the commonwealth houses the fourth-largest population of condemned inmates in the nation. And yet, since the Supreme Court reaffirmed the constitutionality of capital punishment in 1976, Pennsylvania hasn’t executed a single prisoner who didn’t voluntarily end the appeals process and ask to be put to death. Over the same period at least 20 condemned inmates have died of natural causes.

Keeping all those inmates on death row for so long is an enormous drain on states resources. Studies show it costs more than twice as much in appeals, administration and housing to put an inmate to death than to house him or her for the rest of their lives. Nonetheless, every year the governor of Pennsylvania, whomever he may be, signs dozens of death warrants—a total of 386 of them over the past 34 years, to be exact. Ed Rendell signed 119 himself, and Tom Corbett signed eight more this year alone. To put those numbers into perspective: When our neighbor, New Jersey, banned the death penalty in 2007, there were just eight men awaiting execution.

The American Bar Association has a theory as to why the Keystone State carries out so few executions despite having so many condemned: the atrocious state of our public defender system. Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation that provides no post-conviction financial support for defense appeals, meaning defendants are typically required to turn to county services and the aid of less-than-able court-appointed attorneys. As a result, cases are often wildly mismanaged, and data shows nearly as many death convictions are overturned in Pennsylvania as are handed down each year, the majority of them due to ineffective assistance of counsel.

Back in April, a group of city defense attorneys filed a petition in Common Pleas Court challenging the amount of public funding for criminal defenses in capital cases. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Philadelphia County pays court-appointed death-penalty lawyers less than “any remotely comparable jurisdiction in the country,” which has led to the city having the highest reversal rate in the country of capital cases challenged over the effectiveness of defense counsel. Last month, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court appointed a former Common Pleas Court judge to investigate the claims.

That’s a start. But here’s a better idea: Why don’t we follow the lead of states like New Mexico and Illinois, both of which have abolished capital punishment in the past two years, and end a barbaric and wasteful practice that we aren’t using anyway.

A bill introduced by State Senator Daylin Leach (SB 423) that would end capital punishment in Pennsylvania is currently sitting in Harrisburg in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it is likely to stay given the current political climate in the capitol. That is, unless fiscally minded Republicans join progressives who oppose capital punishment on moral grounds and put pressure on lawmakers to do right by the commonwealth and end this wasteful practice (before cutting education and health care).

As states across the country rethink their stance on capital punishment, it’s fallen to a handful of “true believers,” like Florida, Texas and Ohio, to keep the death machine turning. It’s time Pennsylvania removed itself from the inauspicious group and joined the rest of the civilized world in abolishing capital punishment.

Writer and photographer Christopher Moraff is a news features correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and a contributing writer for the Chicago-based magazines Design Bureau and In These Times, where he serves on the board of editors.