Pennsylvania ranks high among states that impose death sentences and low among those that carry them out: 208 men and women are on death row, but no one has been executed since 1999; only three people have been executed since the penalty was reinstated in 1976.
The number of executions, however, should not obscure the failure of justice in the state’s capital cases. Of the 391 capital convictions there since 1976, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported this week, at least 125 have been reversed or sent back for new hearings by state and federal appeals courts because of serious errors by lawyers.
These abysmal facts vividly show that the death penalty cannot meet constitutional standards. Among the state’s egregious failures is not providing adequate defense counsel in capital cases. Government-appointed lawyers are so poorly paid that few are willing to take on these extremely difficult cases. Philadelphia pays only $2,000 for preparing a case and $400 a day for the trial. In the city, where 69 cases have been reversed or sent back, fewer than 30 of the bar’s 13,000 lawyers are willing to take these cases. Some lawyers are assigned capital cases even when their work is appalling — and even when they have been sanctioned for it by the state disciplinary board. The low fees create a “presumption of ineffectiveness,” a group of lawyers told the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Most of the pending death penalty cases in Pennsylvania are more than a decade old because juries have been increasingly reluctant to impose capital punishment. In place of this de facto abolition, the state should pass a law proposed in March to end the death penalty. There is no argument in favor of maintaining a barbaric, arbitrary and expensive system of capital punishment.