Sunday, October 14, 2007
The exoneration of six death row inmates in Pennsylvania since 1986 has already made a compelling case for a moratorium on capital punishment while problems in the legal system can be investigated.
Now, a study by the American Bar Association has cited "substantial" flaws in the state's death penalty system and raises serious questions about the legal representation of minorities, who make up a high proportion of those awaiting execution in Pennsylvania.
Minorities and the poor are often the most victim ized, given their limited resources to hire seasoned crim inal defense attor neys and investiga tors, according to the report.
The four- year study by a team of legal professionals with "varying per spectives" on capi tal punishment ech oed many of the issues raised previ ously by organizations such as the Innocence Project, the Pennsylvania Council of Churches, the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Moreover, while not all the cases involved inmates facing death, Patriot-News reporter Pete Shellem has gained national recognition for investigative work in recent years that has lead to freedom for several people found to have been wrongly convicted and sent to prison on murder charges.
The ABA study supported a moratorium on the death penalty and suggested Pennsylvania consider several recommendations for capital cases:
- Requiring the preservation of all biological evidence, which the state currently does not do.
- Requiring all defense attorneys to have achieved the level of legal training recommended by the bar to work on death penalty cases.
- Mandating legal representation during the state appeals process. Currently, inmates are not guaranteed a lawyer on appeal if they can't afford one.
- State funding for adequate legal counsel as opposed to county governments providing public defenders, whose competency in capital cases varies.
The ABA recommends Pennsylvania do its own comprehensive study of its death penalty system. We concur. We also again call upon Gov. Ed Rendell to change his position and agree to a moratorium until such a review can be completed.
We are not calling for a end to capital punishment in Pennsylvania, and suspect the vast majority of the state's death row inmates are guilty of the crimes of which they were convicted.
But the mounting volume of evidence -- the studies, the work of reporters like Shellem, and the previously noted exoneration of six death row inmates who spent a collective 57 years behind bars -- signals that something is terribly wrong.