The Associated Press
HARRISBURG, Pa. - Pennsylvania's death penalty system would be fairer if all confessions were taped, biological evidence was better preserved and more money was spent on legal defense, according to a bar association report released Tuesday.
A five-member team under the American Bar Association's Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project spent 2 1/2 years studying how capital murder cases are investigated and tried in Pennsylvania.
"When you're dealing with the death penalty, you have to be right," the ABA's president-elect, H. Thomas Wells Jr., said at a Capitol news conference. "This is not a system that delivers the justice citizens of Pennsylvania expect."
The report warned that Pennsylvania's application of the death penalty is inconsistent and found that people convicted of murders with similar circumstances often receive very different sentences.
Bruce Castor, president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said statewide minimum standards are a good idea, but the current system is not fatally flawed. His group is writing an objection to the ABA report.
"We haven't had anyone executed in Pennsylvania against their will in 45 years," said Castor, the Montgomery County district attorney. "So the people who are suffering because of inadequacies in the death penalty system are the survivors of homicide victims who never see justice carried out."
The team did not recommend a death-penalty moratorium in Pennsylvania, although the ABA in 1997 called for states with the death penalty to declare a moratorium on executions until the systems' flaws are corrected.
The Pennsylvania Moratorium Coalition, which wants the death penalty to be suspended, said the report shows the system is plagued with errors.
"We risk the potential execution of somebody who's innocent," said coalition spokesman Andy Hoover. "Hopefully those in the state Legislature will recognize that there's an opportunity here to commission a study on the death penalty."
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, six inmates on Pennsylvania's death row have been freed since 1986. The state has executed three people since reinstating its death penalty in 1978, the last one in 1999. There were 228 people on death row as of Oct. 1.
In the new report, the ABA team found racial disparities in the state's capital sentencing system, with blacks being sentenced to execution more often than whites.
Anne Bowen Poulin, a Villanova University law professor who headed the Pennsylvania team, said the group found the state fully complies with only seven of 93 protocols the ABA drafted to ensure that capital punishment is applied fairly.
In many cases, there was insufficient data to establish whether the state met the standards, Poulin said.
"We don't have enough data, which in itself is a problem," she said.
The team recommended a ban on executing offenders with severe mental illness, better jury instructions, tougher attorney qualifications and improved monitoring of capital case procedures.
"When you have cases that the lawyers have not done an adequate job (on), or had adequate experts to assist them, those cases get reversed anyway," said the prosecutors' association's Castor. "So it's in our interest to make sure the proper level of competence is there from the beginning."
State Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, said the ABA report adds momentum to work under way by an advisory committee on wrongful convictions that is expected to issue recommendations next year.
"They've brought together in one document issues that have been discussed in Pennsylvania for quite awhile, which I think is helpful and important," said Greenleaf, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
In 2003, a committee appointed by the state Supreme Court recommended that Pennsylvania stop executing criminals until it can study the impact of race in death penalty sentences, but the idea did not attract much political support.
Pennsylvania was among the first states in the country to implement systematic training for judges who oversee death penalty cases. In the past two years, 166 judges in 55 counties have undergone an educational conference titled "Managing the Capital Case."
In 2004, the state Supreme Court's Capital Case Standards Committee developed minimum qualifications for experience, education and training among lawyers.
The ABA has conducted similar reviews of death penalty procedures in seven other states: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Ohio and Tennessee. Most of the funding for the study came from the European Commission's European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights.
On the Net:
Pennsylvania report: http://www.abavideonews.org/ABA340/