HARRISBURG- When Kelvin Morris of Philadelphia had his death sentence vacated in a federal district court on Wednesday, it marked the 200th time that a Pennsylvania death sentence has been overturned since the reinstatement of capital punishment in the Commonwealth in 1978.
The Pennsylvania Moratorium Coalition (PMC) noted that the long list of vacated death sentences is indicative of a broken system. The Reverend Walter Everett of Murder Victims Families for Human Rights, a member of PMC, spoke to the impact on the families of homicide victims.
"They are promised ‘closure' once the offender is executed, and they wait for years and even decades for that ‘closure,' only to discover that the promise was a hollow one," said Rev. Everett, whose 24-year-old son, Scott, was murdered in 1987. "The death penalty is effectively a sentence to legal limbo for victims' family members.
"Families never forget, but they are entitled to begin to discover life again rather than to face a 15-20 year sentence of their own."
In May, Senator Jim Ferlo (D-Allegheny County) and five co-sponsors introduced legislation that would create a study commission to examine Pennsylvania's death penalty, accompanied by a two-year suspension of executions.
Senate Bill 850 is currently in the Senate Judiciary Committee awaiting action.
Morris won his federal habeas corpus relief due to ineffective assistance of counsel and an improper jury instruction by the presiding judge in the post-verdict sentencing, the late Alfred Sabo. Morris's defense counsel failed to present and even investigate mitigating circumstances that would allow the jury to consider a life sentence over death. Judge Sabo also instructed the jury that its decision on a mitigating circumstance needed to be unanimous.
Judge Sabo is known as one of America's deadliest judges. During his career, 32 trials in which he presided ended in a capital sentence. 24 of those sentences have been vacated.
Ineffective assistance of counsel is one of the most common reasons why death sentences are overturned in Pennsylvania. 90 percent of those on the Commonwealth's death row were represented by a public defender or court-appointed counsel.
"It would be difficult for anyone to argue that the death penalty in Pennsylvania is just," said the Reverend Neil Harrison, executive director of Lutheran Advocacy Ministry in Pennsylvania, a member of PMC. "It would be even more difficult for anyone to argue that there's no need to at least study capital punishment in our state."
PMC consists of 15 organizations that are calling for a temporary halt to executions to allow the Commonwealth to thoroughly study the way capital punishment functions in Pennsylvania. It includes faith-based, civil rights, human rights, and legal organizations.
Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in Pennsylvania in 1978, three inmates have been executed after voluntarily ending their appeals. During the same time, six condemned inmates have been fully exonerated after spending years on death row for crimes committed by others. 70 percent of those on Pennsylvania's death row are persons of color, the highest minority death row rate in the country among states with at least 10 condemned prisoners.