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April 7 2010 | UNITED STATES


Pennsylvania might be the next state to suspend or abolish death penalty

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The guv & the death penalty


GOV. Rendell has a historic opportunity to honor a campaign pledge and put a stop to Pennsylvania's archaic, ineffective and profoundly cruel and unfair death penalty.

Daylin Leach, a Democratic state senator from Montgomery County, last week introduced a bill that seeks to add Pennsylvania to the list of states like New Jersey, New Mexico and New York that have recently abandoned capital punishment.

Leach points out that Pennsylvania's death penalty costs taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars because of the years and even decades of appeals to which death-row prisoners are entitled. At the same time, he says, the system has sent at least six demonstrably innocent people to death row.

When he first ran for governor in 2002, Rendell, who in his two terms as Philadelphia's elected district attorney put more people on death row than any other D.A. in the state's modern history, said that he would support a moratorium on executions if he were shown that such a move was "warranted."

Only six weeks after he entered the governor's mansion, a commission of retired judges and law-school presidents appointed earlier by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to study the state's capital-punishment system did just that, issuing a 500-page report detailing rampant bias in the state's legal system (two-thirds of those on the state's death row are black and nearly all are poor).

THE REPORT called on all three branches of government, including the governor, to halt all executions until problems with the system can be analyzed and corrected through court reforms, new rules for prosecutors and changes in state law.

Gov. Rendell ignored that report, and has subsequently signed more than 100 death warrants.

There are currently 220 people awaiting execution in Pennsylvania, which has the fourth-largest death row in the country. Thirty-nine death row inmates, mostly African-American, were put there by Rendell when he was Philadelphia D.A.

If that Supreme Court study weren't evidence enough that the state's death penalty law is fatally flawed, Rendell might consider that two men, Harold Wilson and Nick Yarris, were freed while he was governor after having spent, respectively, 16 and 20 years on death row. Both were found to have been not guilty of the murders for which they had been sentenced to die. Wilson was prosecuted by a Rendell protege, Jack McMahon, who now, in private practice, resolutely opposes the death penalty.

A third man, Neil Ferber, tried, convicted and sentenced to death in Philadelphia by Rendell's D.A. office, was found innocent and freed in 1986 after winning a new trial because of police misconduct, and other issues that tainted his first trial.

If the governor needed yet another reason to order a moratorium, he could consider a 2007 study by the American Bar Association, which also called for a halt to Pennsylvania's death penalty, saying it was so "pervasively flawed" that this state "risks executing an innocent person."

None of these reasons seems to have moved Rendell to call for a moratorium for Pennsylvania's death machine, despite his campaign promise in 2002.

Now that the governor is finishing up his last term of office, he should take the opportunity provided by Leach's abolition bill, and finally do the right, instead of the politically easy thing.

As a longtime advocate of capital punishment, and a man who has personally overseen the sentencing of 40 people to death, Rendell has the standing to persuade others in the legislature to pass this bill. He himself knows how badly flawed, biased and unfair the system is, since his own D.A.'s office used to routinely remove African-Americans from death penalty juries the better to win convictions of black defendants, at least one of whom, Wilson, because of those tactics, later won a new trial - which acquitted him.

Do the right thing, governor. Bring Pennsylvania into the modern world.

End the death penalty.

Dave Lindorff is a Philadelphia-area journalist and author of "Killing Time" (Common Courage, 2003).

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