ACLU of Pennsylvania Asks For Moratorium on Executions

April 22, 2003 12:00 am

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ACLU of Pennsylvania
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Statement of Larry Frankel, Legislative Director
ACLU of Pennsylvania


PHILADELPHIA – In light of recently introduced legislation and the findings of a state Supreme Court Committee report, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania today calls on Pennsylvania to enact a death penalty moratorium until serious systemic problems have been addressed.

We urge Governor Edward Rendell and the Pennsylvania General Assembly to take the necessary steps to implement a temporary freeze on executions and address the glaring deficiencies in Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system.

One step would be passing Senate Bill 14, introduced recently by Senator Edward Helfrick (R-Northumberland County), and House Bill 766, introduced by Representative John Myers (D-Philadelphia), which would implement a temporary freeze on executions in Pennsylvania.

Whether one supports or opposes the death penalty it is necessary that our elected officials recognize the magnitude of the problems plaguing our state’s death penalty system. Like the rest of the country, Pennsylvania has made mistakes. Of the 107 innocent people from all across the country who have been exonerated since 1977, four were from Pennsylvania.

More than 50 defendants on death row in Pennsylvania have been granted new trials or sentencing hearings because of fatal flaws in their cases. Since the beginning of this year alone, Philadelphia courts have granted three new trials and overturned four other death sentences. Within the last two weeks, a defendant in Philadelphia County and one in Lehigh County have been sentenced to life at re-sentencing hearings after significant errors were found in the original trials that resulted in death sentences.

The wrongful convictions of dozens of innocent people show how much the credibility of our criminal justice system has been compromised by the use of: false or mistaken testimony, prosecutorial misconduct, police misconduct, faulty expert testimony and jailhouse snitches. Ineffective and incompetent defense lawyers have also done more than their fair share to contribute to these miscarriages of justice.

Many of these problems were identified in the recent report of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Committee on Racial and Gender Bias in the Justice System. Along with identifying disturbing problems in Pennsylvania’s indigent defense system, the Committee also found that there was a compelling need to investigate the impact of the race of the defendant and the race of the victim in determining who gets sentenced to death. Because of these findings, the Committee called for a moratorium on the death penalty that should continue until the death penalty can be implemented fairly and impartially.

Additionally, more than 20 individuals on Pennsylvania’s death row have been identified as persons with mental retardation. Those individuals are not eligible for execution under the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Atkins v. Virginia, which held that it is unconstitutional to execute a person with mental retardation. The General Assembly has failed to enact legislation to bring Pennsylvania law into compliance with that decision. Executions should not proceed until this serious problem is addressed.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania agrees with the Committee on Racial and Gender Bias. We believe that there is overwhelming evidence that cries out for the enactment of a death penalty moratorium. We urge Governor Rendell and the Pennsylvania General Assembly to do justice by calling a halt to executions and taking a fresh look at the death penalty. A system that makes so many mistakes not only shames us but also fails to protect us.

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