Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The courts back us up

First, let me acknowledge that the whole "Lynne Abraham must go" thing didn't work out.

Meanwhile, David Rose of PA Abolitionists and Lehigh Valley Committee Against State Killing is submitting the op-ed below to area newspapers. Readers of the Abolitionist get a sneak-peek (as opposed to a "sneak and peek") of the unedited version:

Court decisions reaffirm abolitionists’ arguments
by David Rose
spokeperson, Pennsylvania Abolitionists United Against the Death Penalty
member, Lehigh Valley Committee Against State Killing

In two decisions rendered in June, the United States Supreme Court dealt with race and the death penalty and the quality of defense for poor defendants and, in the process, reaffirmed arguments long made by death penalty abolitionists. In addition, a decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court gives us a reminder of the ongoing, sloth-like movement by the state legislature.

The U.S. Supreme Court tossed out the death sentence for Ronald Rompilla of Allentown due to ineffective assistance of counsel. Rompilla was sentenced to die for the murder of James Scanlon, an Allentown tavern owner, in 1988. Appeals by the defense argued that Rompilla’s trial attorneys, the Lehigh County public defenders, did not research enough of the defendant’s past for mitigating circumstances, which could potentially spare his life, and the high court agreed by a 5-4 majority.

Ineffective assistance of counsel is the number one reason why death sentences are vacated in this country. It is also the top reason why innocent people are sentenced to death. Here in Pennsylvania, the state does not fund public defenders’ offices and provides no funding for appeals by poor defendants.

Predictably, defendants who can’t hire an attorney typically find themselves on the receiving end of a death sentence. 90 percent of those on death row in the Commonwealth were too poor to hire a private attorney. Most public defenders and court-appointed attorneys are good-hearted, hard-working people. Unfortunately, the simple fact is that they are overworked, underpaid, and lacking the resources necessary to provide adequate defense for those whose lives are on the line.

Meanwhile, the impact of race on capital punishment reared its ugly head once again. In a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court granted a new trial to Thomas Miller-El of Texas due to strong evidence that suggests that potential jurors were struck by prosecutors solely on the basis of race. During jury selection, 10 of 11 qualified black panelists were removed by prosecutors.

This is nothing new. In fact, a former employee of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office claims that they were trained in this very tactic. The training came complete with a video.

Race plagues the death penalty system in numerous ways. Pennsylvania’s death row minority rate is nearly 70%, which is second-highest in the nation and is nearly 15 percentage points higher than the national average.

The race of the victim shines an even greater glare on the problems with the death penalty. Approximately 50% of murder victims are white, but in more than 80% of capital cases, the victim is white. This clearly sends the message that some in our society feel that white lives are more precious than minority lives.

Finally, on June 22, the state Supreme Court upheld the death sentence of Ronald Taylor of Allegheny County. Taylor sits on death row for the murder of three men during a shooting rampage in 2000. The court found no reason to overturn Taylor’s death sentence.

And yet the court did acknowledge that Taylor’s appeals may go on. Why? Because Taylor claims that he is mentally retarded. (And he might be mentally ill, to boot.) One might think that the U.S. Supreme Court dealt with the issue of the execution of the mentally retarded in its Atkins v. Virginia decision in 2002, but the court left the states to deal with the details of evaluating a defendant’s mental state and dealing with those sentenced to death prior to the Atkins decision.

Our legislative friends in Harrisburg have yet to deal with the issue a full three years later. They’ve tried to deal with it. In June, 2003, the state Senate passed a bill favored by advocates for the mentally retarded, civil libertarians, church groups, and others by a vote of 48-1. Only Lisa Boscola of Northampton County voted against the bill. That bill never made it through the state House of Representatives.

Today the bill that overwhelmingly passed the state Senate has reappeared in the form of Senate Bill 631, which would allow a judge to determine a defendant’s mental state before trial, and once again, advocates for the mentally retarded, church groups, and civil libertarians are lining up to support the bill. SB 631 currently sits in the judiciary committee, along with a rival bill that would allow a jury to determine mental retardation at the end of the trial. The latter legislation is supported by district attorneys, the attorney general, and others who would prefer to end the execution of the mentally retarded in name but not in practice.

And while all of this is happening in Harrisburg, taxpayer dollars continue to be spent on the appeals of Ronald Taylor because state legislators cannot put the issue to bed once and for all, despite the Supreme Court mandate to do so.

Three cases, three excellent examples of what’s wrong with the broken death penalty system. Even if the citizenry cannot bring itself to support total abolition of capital
punishment, at least it’s clear that the time has come to temporarily shut down the system and decide if it’s worth fixing. As President Bush recently said, if we’re going to err, we should err on the side of life.

David Rose is a spokesperson for Pennsylvania Abolitionists United Against the Death
Penalty and is a member of the Lehigh Valley Committee Against State Killing.


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