Death Penalty

Reforming our Justice System


This week, the Pennsylvania Advisory Committee on Wrongful Convictions released a report calling for serious reforms to Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system. The report examined issues involved in wrongful convictions, including eye-witness identification, false confessions, a lack of or inaccurate DNA or scientific evidence, incorrect or perjurious testimonies from informants, inadequate legal representation, and aggressive tactics in the legal system.

The study cites that since 1989, 273 post-conviction exonerations in 34 states and the District of Columbia have occurred. These exonerations represent failings in the legal system, both for the innocent person wrongfully convicted and jailed, and for the victim of the crime, as well, whose perpetrator has not been caught. The study notes that these exonerations,

“Cast a disturbing doubt on the reliability of eyewitness identifications, confessions,
and overly aggressive practices within the adversarial legal system. Victims can often be mistaken in their identifications of perpetrators, especially when influenced, often unintentionally, by subtly suggestive procedures for lineups, photo arrays, and showups.”

According to the study, along with other studies that have been conducted, eye-witness accounts are notoriously unreliable. In fact, this September, the American Judiciary Society, in collaboration with the Police Foundation, the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, and the Innocence Project, found that sequential line-ups – which is where the officer doesn’t know which person is the actual suspect and witnesses are offered one suspect photograph at a time, rather than all at once are more accurate. Also according to the Innocence Project, false eye-witness identification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions in the nation, accounting for over 75% of the 273 people exonerated.

The report released this week also cited interrogation tactics as a source of wrongful convictions, saying,

“Interrogation techniques applied to suspects are calculated to obtain a confession and recurrently “work” against innocent suspects, especially those who are inexperienced, suggestible, unintelligent, mentally defective or anxious to end the interrogation.”

What the study notes is that oftentimes, aggressive techniques by interrogators and officers sometimes elicit false confessions or admissions of guilt, due to the personalities or mental capacities of the suspect being interviewed. What is just as disturbing in the study is that it found that the suspect’s lack of funds for a lawyer can lead to wrongful convictions as well, noting,

“Many defendants cannot afford a private attorney and therefore receive less thorough representation by overworked public defenders and appointed counsel. In many places, this lack of adequate representation is due to underfunding of public defender offices and substantial underpayment of appointed counsel representing indigent defendants.”

This idea that representation can make the difference in a trial is nothing new. With regards to capital cases, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, the quality of representation is oftentimes a deciding factor in whether or not a defendant will receive the death penaltyinstead of life without parole.

What is perhaps the most disturbing, among all of these issues with the criminal justice system in Pennsylvania as well as nationally, is that the death penalty is still on the table for 34 states. Not only is our entire system corrupt and flawed, it also has the authority to decide when a criminal is guilty enough to live or die. Our system, which is based on faulty eye-witness testimonies, which coerces, as the study says, those who are “inexperienced, suggestible, unintelligent” or “mentally defective”, into giving false confessions, which gives over-worked and under-employed public defenders cases where defendants cannot afford a private attorney, is given the ability to kill men and women, despite the overwhelming and pervasive flaws that have put the innocent bars and, in some cases, executed them.

This study highlights what many have known all along and that is first, we need a radical overhaul of the criminal justice system in this country and second, we need to end this barbaric, this racially skewed, this socio-economically skewed system that is the death penalty. These issues are not exclusive to Pennsylvania, they are endemic of the entire system. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, Pennsylvania has only executed three people, however, the population of death row in PA is 219 people. Not only is the death penalty a moral issue, it is also an issue of cost. A prisoner on death row costs up to three times as much as a prisoner who is given life without parole. Even if we ignore the staggering human rights issues that plague the death penalty, in these very tough economic times, we cannot ignore the fact that exuberant amounts of money are being spent on maintaining this barbaric practice.

It is time we end the death penalty. Tell your PA senator to co-sponsor SB423 and end the death penalty in Pennsylvania for good.

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