When PA's new Governor Tom Wolf took office, one of his early acts was to issue a temporary statewide moratorium on the death penalty so that a bipartisan Senate study committee could complete its capital punishment report. A new commentary (Gov. Wolf made the right call on death penalty moratorium) from a retired judge, Robert Cindrich, in the Harrisburg Patriot News, shows why the moratorium and the report are so crucial
Judge Cindrich writes:
"The Governor was absolutely correct to ensure he has all the information and the committee's recommendations before proceeding with an execution. In using his constitutional reprieve power to delay executions pending the outcome of the study, he followed the lead of numerous other governors -- both Republican and Democrat -- across the nation."
Judge Cindrich describes the multiple, serious concerns with the death penalty in Pennsylvania and highlights three in particular:
The unbelievably high reversal rate of death sentences on appeal in PA: The majority of the 400 sentences handed down since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978 have been reversed on appeal. Cindrich says: "the reversals of so many death sentences prove that far too many individuals received unfair and unwarranted sentences of death."
Pennsylvania's crisis of indigent defense: Noting that the system depends on everyone getting competent legal representation, even those who cannot afford it, the piece reveals that PA has one of the lowest pay rates in the country for public defenders. Cindrich says: "this leads to death penalty trials where the least-equipped, least-resourced attorneys represent people with the most at stake."
Racial bias taints the death penalty system: In a state that is roughly 10% African American, 100 of the 184 people incarcerated on death row as of April 2015 were African American. Pennsylvania was second only to Louisiana in the percentage of African Americans on death row, according to a PA Supreme Court committee. Cindrich says: "[t]here is unquestionably an element of racial bias in the imposition of the death penalty."
With a unique perspective, having served as judge, prosecutor and pubic defender in PA courts, Judge Cindrich is in a special position to express concerns about the use of capital punishment in PA. He is one of over a dozen former judges, prosecutors, and other law-enforcement professionals who sent the House Judiciary Committee a letter (http://www.constitutionproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/PA-Suspension-of-Executions-letter-of-support.pdf) supporting the moratorium back in February.
His essay is well worth a read and strongly supports the idea that Governor Wolf did the right thing in issuing the statewide moratorium pending further study.