New Study Shows Death Penalty Rare for Pa.

Only 8 percent has been sentenced to death since 2007.

Pennsylvania juries have opted for the death penalty in only 3 percent of first-degree murder cases in the past few years, according to an analysis by The Philadelphia Inquirer.

The paper cited an analysis of almost 2,000 Pennsylvania homicide cases between Jan. 1, 2007 and Feb. 3.

One-third of all first-degree murder cases ended with a sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole, and the remainder with guilty verdicts on lesser degrees of homicide, guilty pleas, acquittals or dismissal of charges.

Only eight people have been sentenced to death by Pennsylvania juries since 2007, and it is more likely they will die of old age than lethal injection.

Just three people have been executed since Pennsylvania reinstituted capital punishment in 1978, and all had dropped their appeals. The 211 men and four women awaiting execution—the nation's fourth-largest death row—spend 23 hours a day in solitary confinement in special units at four state prisons.

Despite the controversy over the death penalty, figures on the subject are hard to come by. Prosecutors must file a court notice when they intend to seek the death penalty, but the court system does not keep statistics on when the 67 county prosecutors do so, and neither do prosecutors.

“We've been looking for that kind of information for years,” said Robert B. Dunham, an assistant federal defender in Harrisburg who has long handled appeals of indigent people facing execution.

The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts supplied the paper with a computer spreadsheet of all cases from Jan. 1, 2007— when the Supreme Court implemented uniform reporting rules for all counties—through Feb. 3, 2011. The 362 pages of data list 1,975 cases originating in 56 Pennsylvania counties where a person was accused of causing the death of another.

From this list, 639 cases from 41 counties were culled because first-degree murder—a premeditated, malicious killing—was charged, the only crime for which death may be the punishment. Among first-degree murder cases, 231 ended in a guilty verdict and a life sentence. In only eight cases did the jury opt for death by lethal injection, the paper said.

In Pennsylvania, any death sentence is automatically appealed to the state Supreme Court. Then there is a secondary state appeal, known as a Post-Conviction Relief Act, which may challenge the effectiveness of the defense lawyer and the quality of the defense case. A final federal appeal, known as habeas corpus, raises purported violations of basic constitutional rights during the process. Appeals, however, move slowly, and legal disputes between lawyers, questions from judge and changes in law can slow the process further.

Many criticize the long appeals process, but defense attorneys say it often uncovers fundamental problems or unfairness during the trial.

Dunham said 124 of the 222 death sentences reversed since 1978 were for ineffective defense attorneys. Many of those cases are reappearing in county courtrooms for new trials or sentencing hearings, often resulting in a guilty plea to a lesser grade of homicide.

The Death Penalty Information Center in Washington estimates a death sentence costs up to three times as much as imprisoning an inmate for life at high security. But like most things involving the death penalty in Pennsylvania, hard figures about the cost of prosecuting, defending, and appealing death penalty cases is not collected.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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