PHILADELPHIA – The Philadelphia Bar Association, Pennsylvania NAACP, the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, and Pennsylvanians Against the Death Penalty joined in a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania in support of Gov. Tom Wolf’s moratorium on the death penalty. In February, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams filed an emergency petition before the state Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the governor’s action. The case will likely be argued this fall.
“Gov. Wolf was not only legally allowed to implement a moratorium while the system’s very serious flaws are examined, he was right to do so,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “We must have complete confidence in the process before we take the irrevocable step of executing a human being. It’s clear that Pennsylvania’s current death penalty system – which has a reversal rate of nearly 50 percent, suffers from racial bias, and has condemned at least a half dozen innocent men – is far too deeply flawed to have that confidence.”
The brief argues that not only are the governor’s actions authorized under Article IV, Section 9 of the constitution of Pennsylvania, but they are also justified by the pervasive failures of the capital punishment system, which suffers from high reversal rates of convictions, racial bias, and unconstitutionally under-funded representation for those who cannot afford to pay for an attorney.
According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice, 188 of the 417 individuals who were sentenced to death in Pennsylvania between 1973 and 2013 had their sentence or conviction overturned—more than 45 percent. Six men awaiting execution were later acquitted or had charges dropped.
The high rate of reversals of death sentences stems in large part from the commonwealth’s continued failure to meet its constitutional obligations to provide defendants with an adequate defense. Between 80 percent and 90 percent of the defendants in capital cases are indigent and require court-appointed counsel. Pennsylvania provides no funding for capital defense, and instead passes the burden on to the counties. Defendants are often represented by inexperienced, part-time public defenders or court-appointed attorneys who are paid a flat fee per case, which creates a disincentive for lawyers to provide zealous representation.
In addition, Pennsylvania’s capital punishment system has been and continues to be plagued by racial bias, resulting in glaring disparities in who receives the death penalty. A 2003 report issued by the Committee on Racial and Gender Bias in the Justice System – a body appointed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court – concluded that “race plays a major, if not overwhelming, role in the imposition of the death penalty.” According to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, 118 of the 184 individuals currently on death row are non-white.
The continued failures of the capital punishment system led the Pennsylvania Senate in 2011 to establish the Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment to study the administration of the death penalty in the commonwealth and report its findings. On February 13, 2015, Gov. Wolf granted a temporary reprieve to inmate Terrance Williams, which the governor has said will remain in effect until he has received and reviewed the task force’s report and implemented any changes it recommends.
“These organizations believe that if a capital sentencing system is in effect, it must ensure adequate representation for all in a system free from illegal biases; otherwise it cannot be called justice,” said John Ellison, Reed Smith partner and member of the firm’s pro bono team that co-authored the amicus brief.
Reed Smith and the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed yesterday’s amicus curiae brief on behalf of the amici. The ACLU of Pennsylvania expects that other religious and civil rights organizations may sign on to the brief in the coming weeks.
A copy of the brief is available at: www.aclupa.org/williams