Monday, February 27, 2006

Pennsylvania has lost its taste for death

A man cheats on his wife, with whom he has two kids. His girlfriend becomes pregnant. He lures her to a quarry and shoots her in the back of the head, killing her and her unborn child. And this all happens in York County, which has consistently had one of the highest death sentencing rates in the state.

This sounds like a slam-dunk death sentence for York County DA Stan Rebert, doesn't it? Wrong. Last week a York County jury sentenced Damien Schlager to two consecutive life sentences for the crime described above. (UPDATE, 3/23/06: The YDR link has expired, so here's the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal article.

The York Daily Record article on the sentencing ended with this very telling remark:
Afterward, (Carmen) Potts (mother of Christina Colon, the victim) said she was glad this sad chapter in her family's life has come to an end.

"It's just been a terrible ordeal," she said.

Unfortunately, from hearing victims' families members speak, it never really ends. There is always a hole left from the loss of the family's loved one.

But the death penalty keeps that wound from anything resembling healing. The high number of mistakes we've made make it clear that appeals need to be thoroughly exhausted for capital defendants, but this is extraordinarily painful for victims' families. This constant re-opening of that wound is lessened with life without parole.

Tomorrow night in Harrisburg we'll have the opportunity to hear from a murder victim's father, Reverend Walter Everett. Walt will be speaking about his experience and his feelings about the death penalty at 7:30pm on Tuesday at Grace United Methodist Church, 216 State Street, Harrisburg. It is free and open to the public and is co-sponsored by Central Pennsylvanians to Abolish the Death Penalty and a United Methodist Witness in Pennsylvania.

This story from York County could be anecdotal, but the statistics bear out our growing disdain for state-sanctioned murder. In 1994, Pennsylvania juries dispensed 21 death sentences. In 2003, six defendants in the Commonwealth got death, and in 2004, just four. Today the Pittsburgh Tribune Review examined the public's newfound hesitancy to kill people.
Lawyers and prosecutors say the growing number of prisoners freed by DNA testing and shifting social attitudes about the death penalty have caused juries to lose their taste for capital punishment. Just 10 years after reaching a modern-day peak, the number of death sentences in the U.S. has plunged to its lowest level in 30 years.

"My personal belief is that the heyday of the death penalty is over," said veteran Downtown attorney Caroline Roberto, former president of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Prosecutors are still seeking the death penalty with the same frequency they did a decade ago, but publicity over DNA exonerations, lower murder rates and increased training for defense attorneys have contributed to the decline, legal experts say.

Of course, there is one major problem. Pennsylvania has 225 people on death row, as of February 1. That's the fourth largest death row in the country. The minority rate on the state's row is 69%, second-highest in the country. We have a backlog of cases from the days when the public was perfectly content to kill as many people as possible. We also know that a majority of them are from Philadelphia, and Philadelphia had considerable police corruption problems in the 1980s.

We need a moratorium and we need it now.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

AZ legislators to Ray Krone: Sorry about that

Arizona Daily Star: Wrongfully convicted man gets apology after two years on death row

The chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee said all the right things...
Sen. John Huppenthal, R-Chandler, called the 1992 conviction of Ray Krone "a truly tragic case." He said none of the evidence readily available pointed to him as a suspect, much less the murderer.

"In a way, it's a lesson for us all that this can happen in a modern society," Huppenthal said in the public apology on the floor of the Senate.

"When we think we have foolproof systems where this would never, never happen, it has happened. And we need to be aware that it truly could happen again and is likely happening again."

But Senator Huppenthal is still willing to risk executing an innocent person.
Krone said his situation proves the death penalty should be abolished. But Huppenthal said he's not willing to go that far, saying only that maybe there should be "guidelines" about when to seek the ultimate sanction.

The death penalty is like an addiction for some of these politicians. Even when they know how horrible it is, they'll still go with it. Amazing.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Ex-KGB officer opposes the death penalty

When Vladimir Putin is more enlightened on the death penalty than we are in the United States, we have to take a serious look at ourselves and say, "What the hell is the matter with us?"

Itar-Tass: Putin personally against death penalty, listens to public opinion

Apparently, this has been his stance for many years. I just found out about it. From Amnesty International's 2001 press release:
"The state should not assume the right which only the Almighty has -- to take a human life," he said. "That is why I can say firmly -- I am against Russia reinstating the death penalty."

President Putin was also quoted as saying that he was aware of public opinion on the death penalty but believed that state-sponsored cruelty did nothing to fight crime and only engendered new violence.

The death penalty elephant has been acknowledged

With Senator Greenleaf's innocence commission bill, I've been concerned that the death penalty would be the elephant in the room that everyone can see but no one wants to acknowledge.

Well, the elephant has landed. From the memo to the Judiciary Committee on SB 1069:
Nationally, 174 individuals have been exonerated through postconviction DNA testing; 14 of those individuals spent time on death row. Eight individuals have been exonerated in Pennsylvania through postconviction DNA test. Three of the individuals were in prison for murder and one of the three was on death row.

Bravo to Gregg Warner, Senator Greenleaf's counsel, for not allowing the death penalty to be swept under the rug.

The one death row DNA exoneration referred to in the memo is Nick Yarris. It is also worth mentioning that the introduction of DNA evidence from the crime scene helped lead to the acquittal at retrial of Harold Wilson of Philadelphia, after 16 years on death row.

Innocence Commission Act goes to the PA Senate floor

At yesterday's PA Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, the committee sent Senate Bill 1069, the Innocence Commission Act, to the full Senate. The bill went through the committee without debate and without opposition. Not even Senator Jeff Piccola (R-Dauphin) opposed it.

So the bill is on the floor of the Senate, and supporters are cautiously optimistic. We might have some work to do to get it through the House, though. The chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Dennis O'Brien (R-Philadelphia), is reportedly a waterboy for the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.

To be fair, no one in the House or at the PDAA has publicly opposed the bill, but you know how politics works, especially in Harrisburg. A bill can go to a committee and disappear into a vast, dark black hole.

This bill has fast-tracked. It was introduced on January 23. Hearings were held on January 30. And yesterday it hit the Senate floor. This has been amazing to watch.

At the committee hearings on January 30, all of the witnesses testified in favor of the bill. Nick Yarris, who spent 21 years on PA's death row before DNA evidence cleared him in 2004, was the first witness and urged the legislature not only to pass this bill but also to impose a moratium on the death penalty.

"Any real look at innocence in Pennsylvania must start with a moratorium," Nick said.

Nick also testified that he believes there are more innocent people among the state's 224 death row prisoners, and he named two: Walter Ogrod and Ernest Simmons.

Other witnesses included exonerees Thomas Doswell and Vincent Moto and Stephen Saloom, Policy Director of the Innocence Project.

"Nobody wins when an innocent person is convicted," Saloom said.

"The innocence commission crafted by this bill has the potential to be one of the nation's best. It has the potential to make Pennsylvania a model."