Monday, 14 January 2008

Death penalty dying in nation

Former District Attorney Claude A.L. Shields hit the nail on the head in 2001 when, during an interview in his unsuccessful campaign for reelectopn, he said “We don’t have the death penalty in Pennsylvania.”

Last week, the U.S. federal court system ordered a new trial for Daniel M. Saranchak, who was sentenced to death on Sept. 16, 1994, for the Oct. 15-16 1993 murder of his grandmother and uncle. He had been within an hour of execution on Nov. 8, 2000, when a federal judge ordered a stay of execution.

During the 2001 interview, Shields said that, in Pennsylvania, due to various factors and trends in the state judiciary and the federal judiciary in the northeast, there will almost always be a judge ready to stop an execution.

In fact, since the Pennsylvania death penalty was reinstated in the state in 1978, only three convicted murderers have been put to death.

• On May 2, 1995, Keith Zettlemoyer was put to death by lethal injection for killing a man scheduled to testify against him in a robbery case.

• On Aug. 15, 1995, Leon Moser was executed for killing three people.

• On July 6, 1999, Gary Heidnick was executed for murdering two women he had held prisoner in his home in Philadelphia.

There are 228 persons imprisoned under sentence of death in Pennsylvania. Appeal after appeal keeps them from serving their sentence.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is considering the constitutionality of the lethal injection, weighing the evidence to decide if it is cruel and unusual punishment.

What’s really the point any more? Shields was right. We don’t have a death penalty in Pennsylvania. Why don’t we just make the law conform with the reality. Let’s turn de facto into de jure.

We waste a lot of money — remember, the taxpayer is paying the condemned’s legal bills as well as the prosecutor’s expenses — on these battles over a punishment that is seldom, inflicted.

Moreover, while the condemned are under sentence of death, they are housed separately, more expensively. It would save a lot of money to just commute everyone’s sentences to life and roll them into the general population.

It is a widely repeated opinion that statistics prove the death penalty has no deterrent value. That statement screams out for a lot of qualification; however, one thing is certain. If the death penalty has any deterrent value, it is lost when the sentences aren’t carried out.

Unless there is a change in the American psyche, it is highly unlikely we will ever go back to the days of certainty when someone sentenced to death could rely on being executed within a year or two at most.

There is too much fear — backed up by DNA evidence — that we will kill the wrong person.

There are too many fine distinctions, degrees of guilt delineated, and questions over aggravating and mitigating circumstances.

There are too many loopholes and judges ready to use them to stop a procedure in which the establishment no longer really believes.

The death penalty is dying a slow death in America, but make no mistake, its demise is imminent.

In Pennsylvania, we might as well just put it out of its misery.

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