Sunday, 21 January 2007

Hundreds wait, few executed in Pa.

Hundreds wait, few executed in Pa.
By Chris Rosenblum

Many are condemned. Few die.

Since Pennsylvania reinstituted capital punishment in the mid-1970s, governors have signed 330 death warrants. But the commonwealth has executed only three prisoners -- two in 1995, both of whom waived their rights to appeal, and one four years later.

Some inmates have died of old age or natural causes. Some sentences have been commuted to life without parole, an option in Pennsylvania capital cases. Six men have been exonerated.

Most have waited, many for more than a decade, while their appeals work their way through state and federal courts. That process, legal experts say, leads to the state's backlog.

"It's not delay for delay's sake," said Thomas Place, who teaches criminal law at Dickinson School of Law. "It's because we have a system of multiple reviews."

Currently, 217 men and five women are confined on death row -- the fourth-largest population among the 38 states with capital punishment. They're held at the State Correctional Institution at Greene, SCI Graterford and, for the women, SCI Muncy. Executions by lethal injection, which replaced the electric chair in 1990, take place at the State Correctional Institution at Rockview.

Pennsylvania's record isn't unique, noted Richard Deiter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based, nonprofit research organization.

California, which leads the country with 657 death-row inmates, has executed 13 prisoners since 1976, including three in the past two years, according to the DPIC. At the other end of the scale with 11 on death row, New Jersey has not executed anyone in 31 years.

Deiter said appeals from Pennsylvania's large death-row population form a "bottleneck" at the state Supreme Court. State and federal judges these days are also taking high-profile exonerations -- many from DNA testing -- into account during reviews, Deiter said.

"That, I think, causes the whole system to slow down, to make sure these mistakes aren't affecting other cases, so there's more scrutiny from the state and federal courts," Deiter said.

Nationally, death sentences have decreased by about 60 percent since 1999, with only six states carrying out more than one execution last year, and none more than five, according to the DPIC.

In contrast, Texas put to death 19 in 2005 and 24 last year. It has 392 death-row inmates, and since 1976, has had 381 executions -- tops in the country.

Like their Texan counterparts, Pennsylvania governors have signed death warrants. Gov. Ed Rendell has inked 63, second only to Tom Ridge's 220 during the late 1990s. But one difference comes down to timing, Deiter said.

Texas sets a date for execution once the federal appeals process is exhausted, Deiter said. Pennsylvania, on the other hand, proceeds when state appeals conclude,leading to stays of executionto allow for further review up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Issues such as racial bias -- minorities make up a large majority of Pennsylvania death-row inmates but only about a seventh of the state's population -- and inadequate representation may concern Pennsylvania judges more than Texas judges, Deiter said. That may lead to longer deliberations or more cases being returned to trial courts, he said.

"All of that helps slow the process down," he said. "If you have a place like Texas, everybody seems to say it's fine."

From the start, Pennsylvania's capital punishment law generated controversy. The high court, in 1972, ruled that death sentencing under the state's 59-year-old capital punishment statute was unconstitutional.

After the General Assembly resurrected the law with amendments in 1974, over the veto of Gov. Milton Shapp, the court again struck it down three years later. The next year, with another veto from Shapp, lawmakers passed the current statute.

In general, Place said, it must be remembered that appeals of all kinds swamp courts.

"We want our courts to look carefully at every one of these cases, and we don't have a special court for death-penalty cases," he said.

Rendell spokeswoman Kate Philips said capital case appeals are "a very thorough process, and rightfully so."

"Does it take a long time? It certainly does," she said. "It should. Everyone should have the right to DNA testing and every avenue of the courts available."

But William DiMascio, executive director of the Philadelphia Prison Society, a social justice organization that opposes the death penalty, sees a change down the road.

"I think once the appeals have run their course, the state will pretty well have to carry out those executions," he said. "I suspect we'll hit the point where we're doing them all at once. I think that's yet to come."

Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620.

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