Occasionally, innocent people are convicted of crimes they didn't commit. It's a tragedy when this costs someone their freedom. But when the crime is murder and the penalty is death, can American society afford the injustice? This question is at the heart of the national debate over the death penalty.
Last week, the American Bar Association's Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project issued a report critical of the application of the death penalty in Pennsylvania. While it didn't call for a moratorium in the state, it did recommend steps that would make applying the death penalty fairer.''When you're dealing with the death penalty,'' said ABA President-elect H. Thomas Wells Jr., ''you have to be right. This is not a system that delivers the justice citizens of Pennsylvania expect.''
In short, nobody in Pennsylvania can guarantee that an innocent person will never be executed. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978, the state has executed three people, the last one in 1999. But since 1986, the state has also freed six individuals from death row -- an indication that the system isn't perfect. Are there other innocents among the 228 prisoners awaiting the ultimate sentence on Pennsylvania's death row?
As long as the state allows the death penalty, it must do everything possible to administer it fairly. According to the ABA study, that isn't happening. In fact, of 93 protocols that the ABA recommends to make sure capital punishment happens fairly, Pennsylvania complies with only seven, while partially complying with another 26 -- hardly reassuring.Bruce Castor, president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, plans to object to the ABA report.
The Montgomery County district attorney says those who suffer the most from the ''inadequacies in the death penalty system are the survivors of homicide victims who never see justice carried out.'' Nonetheless, he supports statewide minimum standards for death penalty cases.The question is whether minimums are enough for the maximum sentence. In 1997 the ABA urged states to halt executions until due process could be assured in death penalty cases. Its study is an effort to help states accomplish that.
The study found racial discrepancies, with blacks being sentenced to death more often than whites. It raised concerns about the quality of legal services provided to poor defendants both at trial and on appeal. It cited inadequate access for defense teams to experts and investigators and found ''an astonishing 98.6 percent'' of jurors failed to understand at least some of their instructions.To remedy some of these shortcomings, the ABA recommended taping confessions, preserving biological evidence, making more money available for legal defense, better jury instructions, a study of sentencing disparities and other changes.
All of this falls into the context of efforts in recent years by the General Assembly and the state Supreme Court to make the application of the death sentence more just. But, the work won't be finished until Pennsylvanians have full confidence that when the state executes someone in their name, the condemned is definitely guilty.