Thirty-two states, including Pennsylvania, have the death penalty. Since 1976 when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment, Rhode Island (1984), New York (2007), New Jersey (2007), New Mexico (2009) Connecticut (2012), and Maryland (2013) have abolished it. But the repeal in the last three states was not retroactive so they still have prisoners on death row. Massachusetts' death penalty statute was nullified in 1984 by court rulings.
Could Pennsylvania become the next state to abolish capital punishment?
The Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment is nearing the end of a two-year comprehensive study of all aspects of the death penalty.
“No one has ever done this before in Pennsylvania,” said state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R-Montgomery), whose legislation created the commission.
The Penn State Justice Center for Research, the Inter-branch Commission on Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness and the Joint State Government Commission are researching all aspects of capital punishment for the task force. They were supposed to report findings and make recommendations this month but have asked for an extension to spring to complete what Greenleaf calls a “very laborious and time-consuming” process, which involves examining death penalty cases in every county of the state.
Three prisoners have been executed in the commonwealth since 1976, two in 1995 and the other in 1999. During that same 37-year period, 1,352 prisoners were put to death in the U.S.
Greenleaf said the researchers are looking at policies, procedures and impact of the death penalty including whether it’s being applied disproportionately based on race.
“They’re having primary concerns themselves with statutory aggravators and mitigators; they’re the factors that come into play when a jury decides whether they give the death penalty or not,” Greenleaf said.
Of the 189 inmates on Pennsylvania’s death row, 101 are black — 53 percent. Louisiana has the highest rate of blacks on death row at 70 percent. Nationwide, 41 percent of those awaiting execution are black.
The task force is also looking at everything from intellectual disabilities of inmates to the appeals process, from the use of lethal injection to the impact of the process on victims’ families.
Greenleaf, a former prosecutor, said the panel could suggest eliminating the death penalty in Pennsylvania.
“We have to look at the report, but, of course, it could result in abolishing it or it could result in some changes or modifications of the process, everything is on the table right now," he said. "We want to see what their recommendations are.”
He added that the commonwealth’s adoption of DNA testing several years ago, which resulted in the exoneration of one death row inmate, is a pivotal factor in the basic question.
“Is it more important that we convict every guilty person and execute them or is it more important that we never execute an innocent person?" Greenleaf said. "Our founding fathers said that it’s better to acquit a few guilty people than it is to convict one innocent person.”