Wednesday, May 11, 2005

No need for Lebanon County to fire up the machinery of death

The following op-ed was submitted to the Lebanon Daily News on Sunday, May 8. It was not submitted in response to LDN's editorial since the Abolitionist just saw that editorial tonight. LDN has thus far opted not to print the column, at least not in its online edition:

In a recent debate between the two Republican candidates for district attorney in Lebanon County, challenger Dave Arnold suggested that county prosecutors should increase their pursuit of the death penalty. This is a shocking statement coming from an employee of the public defenders office. At a time when Americans’ doubts about the death penalty are ever increasing, it would be completely irresponsible for the county to buck national trends and fire up the machinery of death.

In each of the last six years, death sentences have declined in this country. Americans have awakened to the injustices surrounding the ultimate punishment, and while many may support the idea of a death penalty, they recognize that creating a fair, perfect system is impossible.

This new awakening is reflected not only in the decline in death sentences but also in polling data. Multiple polls have shown that when life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is available, as it is in Pennsylvania, the country is evenly split on the question of capital punishment.

The Catholic church is so encouraged by what is happening that the U.S. Conference of Bishops recently started the Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty. The church plans to ramp up its work against the death penalty and with good reason. A Zogby poll released earlier this year showed that Catholic laypersons are now split 48-48 when asked if they support capital punishment, which is a significant decrease in support from previous years.

How did this happen? Dr. Terry Madonna, a political professor at Franklin & Marshall College, once characterized the 1990s as the “hang ‘em high, hang ‘em often” period. How did we move from that mentality to where we are today?

Watching innocent people walk off of death row has jolted the American people into the realization that we have serious problems with the death penalty. Since 1976, 119 innocent people have been released from death row, including six here in Pennsylvania. The most recent exoneree in the commonwealth was Nicholas Yarris of Philadelphia, who spent a shocking 21 years in prison before being cleared via DNA evidence last year. Yarris is featured in the documentary film “After Innocence”, which will be released this fall.

Innocent people are sentenced to death for a wide variety of reasons. In March, 2003, the state Supreme Court’s Committee on Racial and Gender Bias released a report calling for a moratorium on the death penalty. The committee raised concerns of bias in the capital punishment system against minorities and the poor. Pennsylvania’s death row minority rate is nearly 70%, which is the second-highest rate in the country and is a full 15 percentage points higher than the national rate.

The race of the victim plays an even greater factor in death sentences. Whites make up less than 50% of murder victims. Yet in more than 80% of capital cases the victim is white. A district attorney once told me that he believes that this is because jurors can more easily identify with those of the same race.

In addition, nine of every ten defendants sentenced to death in the commonwealth were too poor to afford their own attorney.

These are facts that are well-known in public defenders offices around the state, for our public defenders are on the front lines of this issue. By and large, these attorneys are hard-working, honest, good-hearted people who are overworked, underpaid, and lacking the resources necessary to build a defense for their clients that will avert a death sentence.

As a public defender, Dave Arnold should know these facts, which makes it all the more shocking that he would suggest that Lebanon County should increase its pursuit of state-sanctioned homicide. There can only be two possible reasons for Arnold’s suggestion. Either he is oblivious to the problems with capital punishment or he is cynical about the people of Lebanon County and believes that he can use the death penalty as a political tool to gain votes.

Arnold has hung his hat on endorsements by two local lodges of the Fraternal Order of Police. At a state senate judiciary committee hearing in March, 2002, the FOP testified against a bill that would have ended the execution of the mentally retarded, a practice opposed by three of every four Americans. Three months later the United States Supreme Court ended this horrendous practice by a 6-3 vote, and a year later the state senate passed the bill that the FOP opposed by a 48-1 vote.

It has been 11 years since a Lebanon County jury sentenced a defendant to death. The people of this great county can be proud that they have chosen to err on the side of life, not on the side of death.


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