“Death penalty violates PA’s constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment”


“Anyone who claims to believe in the sanctity of life, truth, or justice cannot seriously defend the application of the death penalty in Pennsylvania,” Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner wrote in a brief  to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court last month.

Krasner based his argument on how the death penalty has been applied in Philadelphia, “the jurisdiction that has sought and secured more death sentences than any other county in the state.” His office studied the 155 cases in which defendants were sentenced to death between 1978 and December 31, 2017. What he found, he told the court, “was troubling information regarding the validity of the trials and the quality of representation” those charged with the death penalty received.

Among the findings:

  • 72 percent of the 155 death sentences (112 out of 155) were overturned post-conviction.
  • 66 percent of the overturned death sentences (74 out of 112) were overturned due to ineffective assistance of trial counsel, the majority of whom were selected by the court to represent an indigent defendant.
  • 91 percent of the 112 overturned death sentences (102 out of 112) resulted in the defendant receiving a final, non-capital disposition.
  • 91 percent of those on death row are people of color. And of those condemned, 82 percent are black. Philadelphia’s black population is below 45 percent.
  • 62 percent of those sentenced to death were represented by attorneys who were found by a court to be ineffective in at least one other Philadelphia capital case.

The upshot, according to Krasner, is that, “Where nearly three out of every four death sentences have been overturned— after years of litigation at significant taxpayer expense—there can be no confidence that capital punishment has been carefully reserved for the most culpable defendants, as our Constitution requires . . . “There  is  a  significant  likelihood  that  capital  punishment has not  been reserved  for  the  “worst  of  the  worst.” Rather, what  our  study  shows  is  that, as applied, Pennsylvania’s  capital  punishment  regime  may  very  well  reserve death sentences for those who  receive  the “worst” (i.e.,  the  most  poorly funded  and  inadequately supported) representation.

“Decades  of  data from Philadelphia demonstrates that, in its application, the system has operated in such a way that it cannot survive our Constitution’s ban on cruel punishment.”

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