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Panel Urges Halt to Executions in Pa.

Committee named by state high court calls for a moratorium to allow probe, noting that race has been a factor in some death sentences.

March 05, 2003|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

Pennsylvania should halt executions until it can thoroughly study the effect race has on the imposition of death sentences, a blue-ribbon committee appointed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recommended Tuesday.

Studies conducted in Pennsylvania "demonstrate that, at least in some counties, race plays a major, if not overwhelming role in the imposition of the death penalty," the report said.

The committee called on Gov. Ed Rendell, a death penalty supporter, to use his constitutional authority to grant temporary reprieves. The committee also urged the state Supreme Court to declare a moratorium, "pursuant to its inherent power to issue temporary stays of execution." There was no immediate comment from Rendell or the court, which appointed a committee to study racial and gender bias in the state's courts three years ago.

"The moratorium should continue until policies and procedures intended to ensure that the death penalty is administered fairly and impartially are implemented," said the committee, chaired by Nicholas P. Cafardi, dean of the Duquesne University School of Law in Pittsburgh.

With 245 condemned inmates, Pennsylvania has the fourth-largest death row in the nation, trailing California, Texas and Florida. Although minorities make up only 11% of Pennsylvania's population, 68% of the death row inmates are minorities -- including 150 blacks, 15 Latinos and two Asian Americans, according to the study.

The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a pro-death penalty group in Sacramento, criticized the report, saying the racial-disparity data was misleading.

"The starting point should be to compare death row with the racial composition of the population of murderers," said the group's legal director, Kent Scheidegger.

Between 1976 and 1999, 63% of the homicides in Pennsylvania in which the race of the perpetrators were known were committed by minorities, he said, citing FBI statistics. That figure is "very close to the proportion of the state's death row," Scheidegger said.

In recent years, there have been growing calls for death penalty moratoriums around the country, starting with a recommendation by the American Bar Assn. in 1997. Illinois is the only state that has a moratorium. Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich lifted one there when he was inaugurated this year.

Several religious groups and city councils in Pennsylvania have called for a moratorium, and a bipartisan moratorium bill is pending in the Legislature. Although Pennsylvania has a large death row, there have been only three executions in the state in the last 25 years. The state had a de facto moratorium on executions from 1987 to 1994 when Democratic Gov. Robert Casey, a devout Catholic who opposed capital punishment and abortion, refused to sign any death warrants.

The report also said Pennsylvania does a shoddy job of providing lawyers for poor defendants facing death sentences.

"With the exception of Philadelphia, there was a lack of effective standards for appointment of capital counsel," the report said.

Moreover, no specific training for lawyers handling death penalty cases is required in the state and "no county effectively monitors performance of capital counsel."

The report recommends that Pennsylvania create a statewide public defender system, adopt new standards for defense lawyers in death penalty cases as recommended by the ABA last month and pass a Racial Justice Act.

Such a statute would permit defendants to present evidence "of a pattern and practice of disparate treatment in both the prosecutorial decision to seek the death penalty and in sentencing outcomes." Only Kentucky has such a law.

"We are very gratified by this development," said Philadelphia attorney Lawrence J. Fox, who heads a special ABA committee on the death penalty. "Pennsylvania has a disastrous system county by county for appointment of lawyers in capital cases."

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