EDITORIAL: Court must act on Pa. death penalty

Staff report
A 2010 file image of the death penalty chamber at California's San Quentin State Prison. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held a hearing last week on a request to strike down the commonwealth's capital punishment in its entirety.

As state lawmakers continue to dawdle on much-needed reforms to Pennsylvania’s death penalty, the state’s Supreme Court has been asked to strike down capital punishment in its entirety.

The court should do just that.

The death penalty in Pennsylvania has become a broken, indefensible system and legislators have proven themselves either unequal to or disinterested in the task of fixing it.

There’s plenty to fix, from a costly appeals process that averages 17 years to the embarrassingly high percentage death row inmates of color to the troubling number of convictions that are later overturned.

And there is a plan to fix it: It has been well over a year since a report by the bipartisan state Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment documented the many flaws in the state’s death penalty process and offered up recommendations for reform.

Among the sensible proposals: Establishing a state-funded office to provide adequate legal representation in capital cases and “enactment of a Racial Justice Act to statutorily allow death sentences to be challenged on a statistical basis.”

But what should have been a starting point for legislative action instead seems to have become a dimming memory. A pair of state lawmakers earlier this year announced plans to pursue legislation to end capital punishment in Pennsylvania.

State Rep. Christopher Rabb, D-Philadelphia County, and Frank Ryan, R-Lebanon County, said in June they were putting together a bipartisan coalition and drafting legislation in an attempt to eliminate capital punishment in Pennsylvania. 

"One innocent life taken at the hands of the state is too many," their bill's memo states. 

But little has been heard from the pair — or any other legislator — on the issue since.

All of which led to last week’s court hearing, in which critics of the death penalty urged the court to abolish the death penalty as unconstitutional.

The move is led by Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who cited some eye-opening statistics. Among them: In a state where African-Americans make up 11 percent of the population, about half of the current death row inmates in Pennsylvania are black, as are 82 percent of those from Philadelphia.

No less troubling is the number of cases that are reversed. More than half of the 441 death sentences handed down since the death penalty was reinstated in the late 1970s have been overturned, Assistant Federal Defender Timothy Kane told the court during last week’s hearing.

In fact, this concern was raised by the Task Force and Advisory Committee.

“There is no way to put procedural safeguards in place that will guarantee with 100% certainty that the Commonwealth will not execute an innocent person,” the committee’s report states. 

Pennsylvania hasn’t put a defendant to death in 20 years and only three executions have been held since the death penalty was reinstated. While there are 137 men on death row, a moratorium on state-sanctioned executions issued by Gov. Tom Wolf issued in 2015 remains in place.

Still, despite what the inaction of the Legislature would indicate, there is urgency to the issue. As the state task force’s recommendations for much-needed reforms continue to gather dust, an expensive, biased and too-often erroneous process remains in place.

If state lawmakers refuse to correct the egregious defects and inequities in the state’s capital punishment system, the state’s Supreme Court should strike it down altogether.