As Pennsylvania’s courts gain more and more national attention, it is time we ask ourselves if we want to continue to be known for having one of the most ineffective and unjust criminal justice systems in the country.
Recently, a study released by the Pennsylvania Advisory Committee on Wrongful Convictions found the state’s criminal justice system is in need of serious reforms due to, among other things, inadequate funding for defense, the inefficacy of eye-witness testimonies, and inadequate or inaccurate scientific evidence.
Additionally, a Philadelphia Inquirer study that examined the past three decades of death penalty appeals in PA found that 125 out of 391 capital cases, nearly one-third, have been reversed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 due, for the most part, to mistakes by defense lawyers that deprived the defendant of a fair trial. These mistakes are oftentimes due to the fact that defense lawyers in PA are paid very little and are given little time and little resources to make their case. According to the Inquirer study, court-appointed lawyers are paid $2,000 for trial preparation and a mere $400 per day in court while veteran defense attorneys are generally paid a minimum outlay of $35,000 to $40,000.
Following on the heels of these two studies, the New York Times released an editorial stating that the death penalty simply must go in the state. The editorial notes that while Pennsylvania is one of the states that most imposes the death penalty, it is the lowest among those who carry out the death sentence with 208 men and women on death row and no one executed since 1999. Since 1976, when the death penalty was reinstated in the United States, Pennsylvania has executed only three individuals. The editorial notes that this low number of executions cannot take away from the extreme failings of the justice system in the state, saying,
“These abysmal facts vividly show that the death penalty cannot meet constitutional standards. Among the state’s egregious failures is not providing adequate defense counsel in capital cases.”
The editorial goes on to note that of the bar’s 13,000 lawyers, less than 30 are willing to take on these capital cases, and it is no surprise given the appalling work load and the inadequate pay allotted to them.
What is most striking about the editorial outside of these appalling facts about the failings in Pennsylvania’s justice system, is that most of the death penalty cases in the state are more than a decade old. This means that fewer and fewer juries are seeking the death penalty in recent years, thus showing that support for capital punishment, at least in Pennsylvania, seems to be shrinking.
Given the clear failures of the justice system in Pennsylvania and the fact that fewer and fewer of the state’s citizens are actually in support of capital punishment, it seems necessary that this unjust system should be put to an end. Senate Bill 423, if passed, would prohibit the use of the death penalty in Pennsylvania. It is imperative that we petition our senators and urge them to co-sponsor this bill. As the New York Times editorial said
“There is no argument in favor of maintaining a barbaric, arbitrary and expensive system of capital punishment.”
It’s time to end this thing.