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The state Supreme Court’s decision last week to uphold the conviction and death penalty for Eric Frein was hardly surprising. After all, the anti-government survivalist was found guilty of murdering one Pennsylvania state trooper and badly wounding another in a 2014 ambush outside the Blooming Grove barracks.

What would come as a surprise is if Frein’s penalty is carried out.

That’s because while capital punishment exists on paper in Pennsylvania, it has been all but abandoned in practice. It has been almost two decades since a convicted murderer has been executed in Pennsylvania.

The state Supreme Court’s ruling is yet another reminder that Pennsylvania lawmakers continue to fail in resolving the status of capital punishment.

Gov. Tom Wolf issued a moratorium on executions shortly after taking office in 2015 — and with good reason. Not only is the process of putting a prisoner to death time-consuming and expensive, Penn State’s Justice Center for Research found that death sentences are more common when the victim is white and less common when the victim is black. The system is, as Wolf aptly summed it up, “ineffective, unjust, and expensive.”

A report by the state Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment was to be the starting point for discussions to address this badly flawed system, but there has been little movement in Harrisburg since it was released almost a year ago.

If the state is going to retain capital punishment, the report offers some valuable reforms, such as setting up a publicly funded agency to provide legal representation in capital cases.

But frankly, the conversation should begin with whether the state should maintain the death penalty at all. It has put only three prisoners to death since ostensibly reviving executions in the 1970s. The appeals process is costly and can drag into decades, and juries have become increasingly hesitant to mete out the death penalty.

As a result, “Prosecutors are increasingly reluctant to pursue capital murder charges, given the high financial cost and lengthy legal battles they guarantee, and the improbability the sentences will ultimately be carried out,” according to a report by the Allentown Morning Call.

Thus it is only the most heinous crimes — Frien’s slaying of a state trooper or the grisly rape, murder and dismemberment of a 14-year-old girl by a monster in Bucks County — that result in death penalty sentences. (Indeed, just last week a York County judge threw out the death sentence of Fawn Township man convicted in a home-invasion double murder.)

State trends generally mirror those on the national level. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, which has closely tracked the nation’s executions since they were reintroduced in 1976:

  • More than a third of the 1,494 persons put to death have been African-American, despite the fact that they make up only about 13 percent of the general population.
  • Repeated studies show the likelihood of a death sentence skyrockets if the victim is white and the defendant is African-American. Of 311 interracial murders that ended in executions, 290 involved African-American defendants and white victims; just 21 were the other way around.
  • More than 160 people nationwide have been exonerated by newly introduced evidence and released from death row.

So, there are strong and compelling arguments against instituting a death penalty — in Pennsylvania or anywhere else.

But state lawmakers need to decide, one way or the other, how the law will address capital punishment. If it is to be maintained, the system must be reformed to ensure equity and fairness. If it is deemed too costly, inefficient or disproportionately administered, then it should be formally stricken from the books.

 

Either way, a decision is long overdue.

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