Smerconish’s Death Penalty Lament

He suggests that death delayed is justice denied. He's wrong.

Poor Michael Smerconish. Pennsylvania still isn’t killing people as fast as he’d like.

So the radio host/CNN talking head took to the most prominent op-ed space in Philly — the Sunday paper, right next to the editorials — and sounded off on an old hobby horse: Pennsylvania justice isn’t working correctly because the state too rarely carries out an execution.

“Today, no matter how heinous the murder, no killer could have a well-founded fear of actually being executed in Pennsylvania,” he lamented. And he’s right. Pennsylvania hasn’t carried out an execution that was opposed by the defendant since 1962.

One thing that Smerconish fails to properly consider, though, is how that empty death chamber might actually be serving the interests of justice.

Yes, Smerconish acknowledged that roughly a third of death sentences since the 1970s had been reversed or remanded by judges because of trial errors by the lawyers. That’s a huge percentage. He ascribes this to the state’s federal judges and their “unwillingness” to allow the death  penalty to be carried out, rather than those lawyers.

Consider this, however: Until two years ago, court-appointed lawyers in death penalty cases — the counsel in the vast majority of death cases coming through the system — were paid on average less than $2 an hour to defend accused murderers: You could get paid better to sweep the supply room at McDonald’s. But would you want the McDonald’s janitor defending your life before a judge and jury?

Since then, the base fee paid to capital-case lawyers in Pennsylvania has quintupled. But that still leaves dozens of cases before then in which defendants faced the system at bargain basement costs. It’ll be years before we can tell if the new, higher fees result in better representation for death penalty suspects. In the meantime, though, it’s no wonder a third of cases get sent back to trial court.

Like I say, this topic is an old one for Smerconish. He’s written about it several times before. This time, though, he tries a different approach— that of taking his ball and going home. If we can’t administer the death penalty efficiently, he says, it’s time to repeal the punishment once and for all.

Which means Smerconish is right about something, though probably accidentally.

Ending the death penalty would save the state millions, both in housing convicts in high-security facilities and in handling their appeals.

Plus, as he says, eliminating the penalty would also reduce years and decades of uncertainty for family members, friends, and others.

But given Smerconish’s past as a high-profile advocate for the execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal, it’s unlikely he’s joining the peace-and-flowers brigade. No, he’s challenging Pennsylvania to do away with the obstacles and start up the executions.

The obstacles serve a purpose. Taking the life of a citizen — even a murderer — is  the state using its most extreme power. We should be cautious about unleashing it. If the choice is between watching the state use the power badly or not at all, I vote not at all. Pennsylvania is already too bloody.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.