The Controversy of the Death Penalty in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania is seeing a dramatic decrease in its use of the death penalty. In the past 57 years, the state has seen only three of these sentences carried out. And these executions only came after the inmates in question dropped their appeals. The state has not executed anyone against their will since 1962.  

Death Penalty- is on the decline- Still controversy in PA

Sentenced to death? Maybe not. 

Most of Pennsylvania’s district attorneys are becoming increasingly reluctant to pursue a death penalty sentence for a variety of reasons. To pursue the death penalty in Pennsylvania, the individual must be charged with first-degree murder. That charge must also be compounded by one or more aggravating circumstances charges. Even if the DA manages to convict for a death sentence, the chances that it will be appealed is enormous.
Moreover, this constant battle of appeals takes a financial toll. Defense expenditures topped $143,000 in a recent capital murder trial. And capital punishment increases correction costs by an additional $15,000 per year. Compounded with public approval sinking for capital punishment, juries have become hesitant to impose death sentences. 
Robert Dunham, a former federal public defender who now heads the Death Penalty Information Center says, “What we’re seeing is that prosecutors have realized those cases are likely to not result in a death sentence.”  Berks County District Attorney John Adams points not only to the resources it takes to bring a death penalty case, but also the “overwhelming” amount of work it takes to uphold a death sentence on appeal. “Prosecutors are only seeking [the death penalty] for the worst of the worst,” Adams said. 

Changes on the horizon 

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who took office in 2018, vowed to never pursue the death penalty. A review of state data by  The Morning Call illustrates the waning frequency with which Pennsylvania is pursuing the death penalty. The number of murder convictions seeking the death penalty dropped 24% from 2004 to 2017. This decline reflects the national trend against the death penalty. As of now, six states have abolished maximum punishment completely in the past decade. 
In addition, Mark Bookman, co-director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, which advises defense teams in death penalty cases, says the death penalty “is a failed public policy.” Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf placed a moratorium on executions in 2015. Yet it remains unclear whether there is momentum within the General Assembly to reform or abolish the death penalty altogether. 

Keeping capital punishment for those who deserve it? 

However, there are those who would prefer executions to resume in Pennsylvania. One of those individuals is Susan Stahler. She is the relative of one of four people murdered by Michael Eric Ballard, who now awaits punishment on death row. “You can say what you want about the death penalty,” Stahler said. “But until you have a loved one murdered, you can’t share your honest opinion.” 
The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association also supports capital punishment. “What do you do with a defendant who intentionally targets and assassinates police officers?” asks the DA’s Association. “What do you do with a defendant who kills a grandmother and suffocates a baby in a suitcase for a few dollars? What do you do with a brutal serial killer that terrorizes communities?” 
District Attorney John Morganelli won Northampton County’s first two death sentences in a generation. He continues to believe in capital punishment. He says his approach to it has not changed, even with executions at a standstill. If the crime warrants the death penalty, Morganelli says, “we’re going to pursue it.” Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin agrees. His office sent a man to death row in 2007.  He claims that any decline in capital punishment is driven solely by the facts of each case, and not by public opinion. 
Even so, nearly 57 people have been sent to Pennsylvania’s death row since 2004. But State Representative Rob Kauffman, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, says capital punishment just isn’t a big topic in Harrisburg. Kauffman said, “this is not one of those front-burner issues.” 
Src: Riley Yates, “Death penalty has fallen out of favor with Pennsylvania prosecutors,” The Morning Call, March 03, 2019 

About Brandon Sample

Brandon Sample is an attorney, author, and criminal justice reform activist. Brandon’s law practice is focused on federal criminal defense, federal appeals, federal post-conviction relief, federal civil rights litigation, federal administrative law, and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

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