EDITORIAL: Study reinforces need to end death penalty in Pa.
When he issued a moratorium on the death penalty shortly after taking office, Gov. Tom Wolf said he was moving to address “a flawed system that has been proven to be an endless cycle of court proceedings, as well as ineffective, unjust and expensive.”
Nothing in that system has since improved, and a new study by Penn State researchers adds to the list of problems with the state’s capital punishment practices.
The 200-page report, which looked at 11 years’ worth of prosecution and court records, was obtained by The Associated Press. Its conclusions: the racial background of a murder victim affects the likelihood the defendant will receive the death penalty.
According to the researchers, who prepared the study for the Interbranch Commission for Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness, a white victim increases the odds 6 percent that a defendant will face capital punishment, while a black victim reduces those odds 8 percent.
The findings reinforce one of the strongest arguments against capital punishment: Its unfair application.
Indeed, the study also noted that while African-Americans make up about 12 percent of Pennsylvania’s population, they account for more than half of the approximately 157 state inmates on death row. Too, there were found to be inconsistencies in prosecution of death penalty cases in different parts of the state, with some counties aggressively seeking capital punishment and others never doing so at all.
“A system in which a death sentence can be imposed must be uniform across the state,” Lisette McCormick, the interbranch commission’s executive director, told The Associated Press. “The chances of having the death penalty imposed should not vary depending on where you live in the state.”
Nor should they vary based on the racial background of the defendant or of the victim.
And the seemingly endless cycle of death warrants and appeals that define many death-penalty cases in Pennsylvania — which has not executed an inmate since 1999 — adds to court dockets and criminal justice costs.
Not to mention the small but significant number of cases in which death-row inmates — or, horrifically, those who have been put to death — are later exonerated by DNA evidence or other means.
All of which points to the same, clear conclusion. Pennsylvania should pull the plug on its metaphorical electric chair.
In announcing the moratorium in February 2015, Wolf said it would remain in effect until a state task force examining whether the punishment is sought and administered fairly can make its recommendations.
We trust the task force will come to the same conclusion as have legal experts, judicial observers and 18 other states — including neighboring Maryland, New Jersey and New York — that have abolished the death penalty.
Arguments about cruel and unusual aside — although it is that, as well — the death penalty has devolved into a costly, time-consuming, resource-sapping exercise that forces families to go years, sometimes decades, without closure.
The United States should join the more than 140 other counties worldwide that have abolished the practice either by law or as a matter of practice. But until then, Pennsylvania should join the 18 other states that have done likewise.
The state task force, if its eyes have been open and its fact-finding has been fair, can make no other recommendation. And state lawmakers and Gov. Wolf can take no other steps than to act quickly once that recommendation is in hand.