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.