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The Justice Wire

RELEASE: PA Legislative Leaders Join Call to Abolish Death Penalty Following Phila. DAO Finding of Unconstitutionality

PHILADELPHIA DISTRICT ATTORNEY’S OFFICE

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT: Jane Roh, 215–686–8711, jane.roh@phila.gov

PHILADELPHIA (August 21, 2019) — Leaders of the Pennsylvania General Assembly are urging the abolition of the death penalty in Pennsylvania following a Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office (DAO) study finding that capital punishment is unconstitutionally applied to mostly poor defendants of color. Earlier this summer, District Attorney Larry Krasner announced the results of the DAO’s study concluding that the death penalty as applied in Pennsylvania is unconstitutional under the state constitution.

The DAO respondent brief in the matter of Jermont Cox v. the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was filed July 15th. Oral arguments are scheduled before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on September 11, 2019.

“Pennsylvania needs criminal justice reform and that includes abolishing the death penalty. It is mostly applied to people of color, and we now have a comprehensive review of Philadelphia death sentences over nearly four decades to prove its unconstitutional application,” said Rep. Stephen Kinsey (Phila.), Chair, Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus. “The Commonwealth has the fifth highest death row population in the United States: 68% of Pennsylvania death row prisoners are people of color. The overall population of people of color in Pennsylvania is just 11%. Each prisoner sitting on death row in the Commonwealth costs $15,000 more per year to house than a prisoner who is serving life without parole. These factors show a system that is flawed, unjust, and expensive.”

“The study conducted by District Attorney Krasner’s office has proven what we have long since suspected: that the quality of a defendant’s defense decreases for the poor and for people of color,” said Rep. Jason Dawkins, Chair of the Philadelphia County Delegation. “Even more alarming is the finding that race and income directly determine whether a person will be sent to death row. Seventy-two percent of Philadelphia’s death sentences — that’s 112 out of 155 — were overturned during post-conviction reviews taking on average 17 years. When 91% of Philadelphia defendants currently on death row are racial minorities, and 80% of those used court-appointed counsel which can be ineffective and unable to mount a proper defense, something drastic must be done to bring fairness and transparency. Therefore, I support abolishing the death penalty in Pennsylvania and I commend District Attorney Krasner and his office for bringing these harsh statistics to light.”

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (Allegheny) concurred: “The death penalty is not only immoral; it is not effective as a deterrent for violent crime. It’s astronomically expensive in comparison to a life sentence, and it’s not equitably applied across demographic groups. The recently released report by the Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment studied 17 areas related to the death penalty and found the Commonwealth lacking in every subject.”

“As a person whose only brother was the victim of a vicious home invasion murder, I can tell you that my beliefs about the death penalty have been seriously tested. Crime victims and their families deserve justice, and I also understand better than most their desire for retribution,” said Rep. Margo L. Davidson (Delaware), Chair, Southeast Delegation. “Nonetheless, then and now, I had to weigh what is in the best interest of humanity, not just the urges for revenge. That is why as a black woman, I can tell you that black folks don’t need a study to prove that racism exists — especially when it comes to the criminal justice system. Whether you are a rapper, an actor, a politician, a teacher, or a truck driver, too often the first, and maybe the only, thing that gets judged is the color of your skin. That means more convictions, harsher sentences, and more death penalties for people who look like me than for people who don’t. It is long past time to put an end to the completely unfair and uneven toll that the death penalty has taken on lower-income people and communities of color. When misjudgments and mistakes are made, as they too often are in our communities, the penalty of death cannot be reversed.”

“As time passes, the voices of our civic and faith leaders grow louder, calling on us to end the death penalty in Pennsylvania. Governor Wolf has correctly placed a moratorium on the death penalty during his tenure, and I am very supportive of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s legal determination that the death penalty is unconstitutional based on its application in Pennsylvania,” said House Democratic Caucus Chair Joanna E. McClinton (Phila.). “It is undeniable that poor people and persons of color are disproportionately subjected to the death penalty. We can no longer ignore the truth — the death penalty is beneath the dignity of the Commonwealth and her citizens. It’s time for the state legislature to act quickly to end this grizzly, outdated punishment once and for all.”

“If we want to be leaders in criminal justice, we need to do away with these archaic laws and abolish the death penalty for good. The results of a study from the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office shows that this penalty is unjustly applied to minority and low-income individuals more than others,” said Rep. Carol Hill-Evans (York), Secretary, Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus. “Not only that, but it is unconstitutional under Pennsylvania’s ban against cruel punishment. This does nothing to deter criminals and gives no peace to the families of victims. Furthermore, it eliminates any possibility of rehabilitation.”

“The death penalty is an ineffective and immoral practice that has been disproportionately applied to people of color for decades. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, in 96% of states where there have been extensive reviews of race and the death penalty, there was a clear pattern of either race-of victim or race-of-defendant discrimination, or both,” said Rep. Summer Lee (Allegheny), Treasurer, Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus. “Institutionalized racism must be called out and dismantled at its core. It is time for Pennsylvania to join with the 21 states that have banned this discriminatory and unjust policy.”

“We have the power to change our laws so they reflect our values. We need to pursue justice for our families and communities and heal the trauma that has been created,” said Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, Secretary, Philadelphia County Delegation. “I look forward to working with my colleagues to put an end to the death penalty in Pennsylvania.”

“I am grateful to our leaders in the Pennsylvania General Assembly who are fighting to keep communities safe, healthy, and whole every day. These legislative leaders are standing up against the injustice of the death penalty as applied in Pennsylvania because it is a punishment that yields no positive returns in terms of preventing violent crime, but also makes the state complicit in injustice when the indigent and innocent are wrongfully convicted and sentenced to die for a crime they did not commit,” District Attorney Larry Krasner said. “The death penalty is more unpopular than ever because it is the most startling example of how our criminal justice system, as currently constituted, destroys and ends people’s lives. Skin color and income should not determine any accused person’s ability to prove their innocence, let alone preserve their life. I want to thank these leaders in Harrisburg who are working at the legislative level to end the death penalty in Pennsylvania.”

Filing Background

The District Attorney’s Office (DAO), following a December 2018 order by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, filed a response in the matter of Jermont Cox v. the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (№102 EM 2018) on July 15, 2019. The DAO conducted a comprehensive study of 155 death sentences issued by the Commonwealth to Philadelphia defendants between 1978 — when Pennsylvania enacted its current death penalty statute — and December 31, 2017, before District Attorney Krasner took office. The DAO’s study found grave inconsistencies and inequities including:

  • 72% of Philadelphia’s death sentences (112 out of 155) were overturned during the post-conviction review process;
  • 66% of the 112 overturned death sentences (74 out of 112) were overturned due to the ineffective assistance of trial counsel (IAC);
  • In 78% of the 74 IAC cases (58 out of 74), the Philadelphia defendant was represented by a court-appointed counsel;
  • In 51% of the 74 IAC cases (38 out of 74), the court found the court-appointed counsel was ineffective; and
  • 152 of the 155 death sentences were imposed during a period when court-appointed counsel were paid only $1,800 to prepare for a trial where the defendant could potentially be sentenced to death.

Previous DAO administrations in Philadelphia sought and secured more death sentences than any other county in the Commonwealth. The study also found that of the Philadelphia defendants currently on death row, 91% are members of racial minority groups, 82% are black even though black people are fewer than 45% of Philadelphia’s population, and 80% were represented by court-appointed counsel, meaning they could not afford an attorney.

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The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office is the largest prosecutor’s office in Pennsylvania, and one of the largest in the nation. It serves the more than 1.5 million citizens of the City and County of Philadelphia, employing 600 lawyers, detectives and support staff. The District Attorney’s Office is responsible for prosecution of over 40,000 criminal cases annually.

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