FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Race and the Death Penalty in Pennsylvania

 

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

 

More articles by:

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).

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
September 23, 2019
Kshama Sawant
Amazon vs. the Socialists in Seattle
Jason Hirthler
American Iago: On Washington’s Character Assassins
Craig Collins
Naomi Klein, Autism and Climate Activism
Michael Welton
The Serpent of Their Agonies
Binoy Kampmark
Strong Men in Europe: Tony Abbott Visits Hungary
Amitai Ben-Abba
And in Those Days There was No King in Israhell
Phil Rockstroh
A Careless Bully at the KFC at the End of Empire
Emiliana Cruz
Commemorating Tomás Cruz
Julian Vigo
Legacy College Admissions Are a Testament to What is Legacy Culture
Manuel García, Jr.
See “Official Secrets”
Dave Lindorff
Faux ‘Working Man’s’ Candidate Biden Looking Like a Loser after Philly AFL-CIO Presidential Summit
Tracey Aikman
President Trump, I’m One of the Workers You Lied To
B. R. Gowani
How news media should handle Trump’s lies
Weekend Edition
September 20, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
Unipolar Governance of the Multipolar World
Rob Urie
Strike for the Environment, Strike for Social Justice, Strike!
Miguel Gutierrez
El Desmadre: The Colonial Roots of Anti-Mexican Violence
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Pompeo and Circumstance
Andrew Levine
Why Democrats Really Should Not All Get Along But Sometimes Must Anyway
Louis Proyect
A Rebellion for the Wild West
T.J. Coles
A Taste of Their Own Medicine: the Politicians Who Robbed Iranians and Libyans Fear the Same for Brexit Britain
H. Bruce Franklin
How We Launched Our Forever War in the Middle East
Lee Hall
Mayor Obedience Training, From the Pet Products Industry
Louis Yako
Working in America: Paychecks for Silence
Michael D. Yates
Radical Education
Jonathan Cook
Israelis Have Shown Netanyahu the Door. Can He Inflict More Damage Before He Exits?
Valerie Reynoso
The Rising Monopoly of Monsanto-Bayer
John Steppling
American Psychopathy
Ralph Nader
25 Ways the Canadian Health Care System is Better than Obamacare for the 2020 Elections
Ramzy Baroud
Apartheid Made Official: Deal of the Century is a Ploy and Annexation is the New Reality
Vincent Emanuele
Small Town Values
John Feffer
The Threat of Bolton Has Retreated, But Not the Threat of War
David Rosen
Evangelicals, Abstinence, Abortion and the Mainstreaming of Sex
Judy Rohrer
“Make ‘America’ White Again”: White Resentment Under the Obama & Trump Presidencies
John W. Whitehead
The Police State’s Language of Force
Kathleen Wallace
Noblesse the Sleaze
Farzana Versey
Why Should Kashmiris be Indian?
Nyla Ali Khan
Why Are Modi and His Cohort Paranoid About Diversity?
Shawn Fremstad
The Official U.S. Poverty Rate is Based on a Hopelessly Out-of-Date Metric
Mel Gurtov
No War for Saudi Oil!
Robert Koehler
‘I’m Afraid You Have Humans’
David Swanson
Every Peace Group and Activist Should Join Strike DC for the Earth’s Climate
Scott Owen
In Defense of Non-violent Actions in Revolutionary Times
Jesse Jackson
Can America Break Its Gun Addiction?
Priti Gulati Cox
Sidewalk Museum of Congress: Who Says Kansas is Flat?
Mohamad Shaaf
The Current Political Crisis: Its Roots in Concentrated Capital with the Resulting Concentrated Political Power
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail