Harrisburg, PA – Seven years after it started, a long-awaited bipartisan report analyzing capital punishment in Pennsylvania was released today. The report highlights numerous systemic flaws in the administration of the death penalty, including the risk of executing an innocent person. In a statement responding to the report’s release, a broad array of advocates agreed that the report validated their concerns over how the death penalty operates in the commonwealth.
“If it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone,” said York County native Ray Krone, the 100th person to be exonerated and released from death row in the United States.
The bipartisan study was initiated by a resolution sponsored by Senator Stewart Greenleaf (R-Montgomery County) and passed by the state Senate in 2011. Its structure included a task force of four senators and an advisory committee of experts and stakeholders, including both prosecutors and defense attorneys, who analyzed different areas of the capital punishment system.
The committee’s analysis indicated that systemic problems with the death penalty persist, including geographical disparities, a lack of adequate representation for poor defendants, and high costs to taxpayers. The committee also relied on a 2017 Penn State study that found that first-degree homicide cases involving a victim who is white are more likely to end with a death sentence than cases in which the victim is Black.
“The stakeholders involved in this process worked hard and took a deep dive into the mechanics of the death penalty,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, who participated with one of the sub-committees. “The report ultimately arrived at the conclusion that capital punishment is deeply flawed.”
The report is the latest in a long line of studies showing significant flaws with capital punishment and the criminal justice system broadly in Pennsylvania, a fact noted by the task force. Previous studies have noted the substantial risk of convicting innocent people, the failure of the commonwealth to provide adequate representation for defendants too poor to afford their own attorney, and the inability of Pennsylvania to meet most of the American Bar Association’s recommended best practices in capital cases.
Since 1976, 162 people have been exonerated in the United States after being convicted and sentenced to death. Six of these individuals were sentenced to death in Pennsylvania, including Nick Yarris, who spent 21 years awaiting execution until DNA testing proved he was not the killer.
The report also highlights the enormous financial costs incurred in capital cases. Death penalty cases are much more expensive than non-capital cases at every point in the process, starting with the decision by the district attorney to seek the death penalty.
“The taxpayers of Pennsylvania are spending hundreds of millions of dollars for a death penalty system that doesn’t work and hasn’t resulted in an execution in nearly 20 years,” said Kathleen Lucas, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
“The death penalty process causes further pain and suffering for many families whose loved ones have been murdered,” said Vicki Schieber, a member of the advisory committee whose daughter, Shannon, was killed in Philadelphia in 1998. “It’s time for Pennsylvania to focus on more effective responses to violence and end the charade of capital punishment.”