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Race and the Death Penalty in Pennsylvania

by DAVID LINDORFF

 

The death penalty moratorium movement, fresh from a big win in Illinois, has now latched onto a bigger target: Pennsylvania, the state with the fourth largest death row in the country with 244 people awaiting execution, 70 percent of them non-white.

On March 4, a committee of prominent legal experts appointed by the state’s supreme court (no slouch when it comes to upholding death sentences), issued a 500-page report detailing the evidence of rampant bias in the state’s criminal justice system. Not only does the report demonstrate that minorities–especially blacks–are disturbingly more likely to get the death penalty than whites–they are more likely to be convicted of crimes at all levels. The report, called The Pennsylvania Supreme Court Committee on Racial and Gender Bias in the Justice System also documents how Pennsylvania prosecutors also regularly remove as many blacks as possible from capital juries during the death-qualifying process of jury selection, making conviction of black defendants easier.

Faced with the incontrovertible evidence it found of this racist contamination of the judicial process, the supreme court racial and gender bias committee has called on all three branches of the state’s government, the governor, the legislature, and the supreme court itself, to establish a moratorium on executions until the problem can be addressed through court reforms, new rules for prosecutors, and changes in state law.

Lissette McCormack, director of the committee and lead author of the study, says that each of the three branches of government is capable of independently instituting a moratorium on the death process. “The governor has the authority to order a reprieve for all prisoners on death row,” she says. “It cannot be permanent, but it could last until reforms are made in the system.” She adds that the legislature could pass a law imposing a moratorium, while the supreme court would be able to block executions on a case-by-case basis.

The committee’s dramatic call for action puts enormous pressure on the state’s new Democratic governor, Ed Rendell, to do something. A former prosecutor himself, Rendell, who served two terms as district attorney of Philadelphia from 1978 to 1986, helped put over 40 people, most of them black, on Pennsylvania’s death row. (Among those condemned to death under Rendell’s direction is Mumia Abu-Jamal, one of the state’s longest surviving death-row inmates. Abu-Jamal’s case is slated to move next to the Third Circuit Court of Appeal, where his lawyers plan to present evidence demonstrating that the DA’s office deliberately used peremptory challenges to improperly bar 11 of 15 otherwise qualified black jurors from serving on his jury.)

During his run for governor last fall, Rendell promised he would impose a death penalty moratorium if he saw evidence that the law was unfair (polls have shown that 70 percent of residents in the state would support a moratorium), but prior to issuance of the committee report, had said he had seen no such evidence. Rendell, who took office in January, has already signed one new death warrant.

Now that the committee has spoken, it will be harder for the governor, who won his seat largely thanks to the black vote in his home area of Philadelphia, to claim the state’s capital punishment system is fair and without problems.

In fact, the Philadelphia DA’s office has long been, and continues to be the main cause of much of the inherent racism in the state’s justice system. Fully 85 percent of the prisoners dispatched to Pennsylvania’s burgeoning death row by Philadelphia prosecutors have been black, though the city is only 44 percent African-American.

Death penalty proponents have long criticized such statistics, claiming that far more homicides are committed by blacks, thus accounting for the skewed figures, but McCormack fires back that this is an intellectually dishonest argument. “They’ll never explain how they’re defining those homicides,” she says. “Are they talking about homicide convictions? If so that’s a tautology. If they’re talking about people charged with homicide, then that doesn’t tell you anything either, because the process of charging people is also racially biased.” White killers, she suggests, are often charged with manslaughter where blacks committing the same offense get charged with first-degree murder.

Jeff Garis, executive director of Pennsylvania Abolitionists United Against the Death Penalty, has called for a stepped up campaign to press for a moratorium on executions in the state. Citing the committee’s call for a moratorium on death, he says, “Now is the time to seize the momentum and demand, demand, demand that officials at all levels of state government abide by the recommendations in this report” he says, adding, “Opportunities like this can become turning points — if we capitalize on them.”

Dave Lindorff is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. A collection of Lindorff’s stories can be found here: http://www.nwuphilly.org/dave.html

 

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Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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