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Prosecutors stake opposite positions in death penalty appeal

July 16, 2019

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Philadelphia’s top prosecutor and the state district attorneys’ association have staked out opposing positions in a case that will determine if Pennsylvania’s death penalty will remain in effect.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said Tuesday his own review found the state’s death penalty violates the state constitutional prohibition on cruel punishment and disproportionately applies to black defendants and the poor.

The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association also filed a brief with the state Supreme Court this week, arguing that the justices should respect the Legislature’s role in establishing state law and keep the system in place.

Pennsylvania currently has 140 men on death row, although Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf imposed a moratorium against carrying out any death sentences shortly after taking office in 2015. Three people have been executed since the state reinstituted capital punishment four decades ago, the most recent in 1999, but all three had voluntarily given up on appealing their sentences.

The state Supreme Court in December consolidated two appeals by death row inmates in order to decide if the state’s system of capital punishment violates constitutional protections.

The filings from the two inmates, convicted of separate 1990s murders in Philadelphia and Northumberland County, have argued that arbitrary factors determine who gets sentenced to death in Pennsylvania, and they say there is no legitimate justification for the system in terms of punishing offenders.

Krasner, a Democrat who successfully ran for office two years ago on an anti-death-penalty platform, said his office reviewed 155 death sentences issued in Philadelphia between 1978, when state law authorized the return of capital punishment, and the end of 2017, just before Krasner took office.

The study found that 82% of Philadelphia’s current death row inmates are black, and that more than two-thirds of the city’s death sentences during the study period have been overturned on appeal, usually based on a finding that the defendants’ legal defense had been deficient.

“Where a majority of death sentenced defendants have been represented by poorly compensated, poorly supported court-appointed attorneys, there is a significant likelihood that capital punishment has not been reserved for the ‘worst of the worst,’” Krasner argued in his newly filed Supreme Court brief.

In its own brief, the district attorneys’ group said those challenging the death penalty have not backed up claims that the number of reversals on appeal means the original sentences were unreliable.

“On the contrary, that appellate courts have determined that the standards or procedures were not followed in a particular case is evidence that the standards and procedures— which include a robust appellate process — work,” they wrote in the brief filed Monday.

They said prosecutors sometimes voluntarily withdraw death sentences or agree to a negotiated life sentence.

“This is not evidence that the defendants were undeserving of the original sentence, but rather demonstrates the practical limitations of seeking another death sentence after a lengthy appellate process,” the prosecutors’ association argued.

The district attorneys’ association sees the death penalty as being sought only in rare cases, based on the facts of the crimes, legal ethics and an interest in applying it in the most heinous killings.

The Supreme Court, which has a 5-2 Democratic majority, will hear oral argument in the matter in September.

The state’s death row has been shrinking for years because of appeals court decisions, an increasing reluctance by some prosecutors to pursue capital cases and deaths among an aging inmate population.

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