Monday, August 28, 2006

Middletown man's death sentence upheld

It's no shock that the death sentence for Ernest Wholaver, formerly of Middletown, was upheld by the PA Supreme Court last week. Wholaver's crime was horrendous. He killed his estranged wife and two daughters, one of whom had accused him of sexually abusing her. One of the daughters was killed while holding her nine-month-old baby, Wholaver's grand-daughter.

This happened in my hometown. Whenever I go to the local Penn State campus for class, I pass the home where it happened. Four years later, the home is still empty and dark.

And there is nothing to indicate that there is any great discrepancy in the case.

But I have a bigger beef with the PA Supreme Court. Frankly, they can't be trusted to deal with the death penalty. There are seven justices on the state's highest court. Six served in a district attorney's office, the attorney general's office, or both. Only one, Chief Justice Ralph Cappy, ever served in a public defender's office, according to their biographies on the court's website.

Now, does serving in a prosecutor's office make one an unfair person? Not necessarily. I know some people who seem decent enough who have served with the AG or a DA. (Well, I know at least one person like that.)

But these justices ran for their positions using their credentials as prosecutors. Justice Michael Eakin ran using an ad that referred to a case where he won a death sentence, as if that is reason to put him on the court. During last year's retention vote, Sandra Newman ran advertisements with former Governor Tom Ridge bragging about her record of upholding the death penalty.

Civics 101: Can justices be trusted as fair arbiters between prosecution and defense when they are using their credentials as prosecutors as the reason why they should be elected or retained?

The greatest sin of the court, though, is its response to the 2003 report from the Committee on Racial and Gender Bias in the Criminal Justice System, the court's own committee. (Chapter 6 is on the death penalty.) Its response to the report has been deafening. That is, the silence has been deafening.

Actually, that's not entirely true. The court has not been completely silent on the committee's recommendation that a moratorium be imposed to study issues of racial and class bias in the application of the death penalty. During the committee's first meeting with the justices after the report was published, the committee members were grilled for their death penalty recommendation by the justices and have since distanced themselves from the capital punishment chapter in order to get other recommendations from the report implemented.

You come here lookin' for justice and that's what you find: Just us.