Murder victims’ families are told by prosecutors that the execution of their loved one’s killer will bring them healing. And then the families are sent on a torturous path through the legal system. On Sunday, the Philadelphia Inquirer featured a front page story on the ongoing failure of Pennsylvania’s death penalty system, illustrated by the ongoing overturning of death sentences.
Death row is all too real, countered Jules Epstein, a Widener University law professor who represents inmates appealing their cases. “There clearly is a death penalty in Pennsylvania,” he said. “People get sentenced to death. People sit on death row. And the real reason people haven’t been executed yet is because of tremendous problems within the system.”
Last week the Pennsylvania Moratorium Coalition, of which ACLU-PA is a part, saw the occasion of the 200th overturned death sentence in PA since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1978 as a reminder of the need for passage of PA Senate Bill 850. SB 850 would create a study commission on capital punishment, accompanied by a two year suspension of executions.
The Pennsylvania Moratorium Coalition (PMC) noted that the long list of vacated death sentences is indicative of a broken system. The Reverend Walter Everett of Murder Victims Families for Human Rights, a member of PMC, spoke to the impact on the families of homicide victims.
“They are promised ‘closure’ once the offender is executed, and they wait for years and even decades for that ‘closure,’ only to discover that the promise was a hollow one,” said Rev. Everett, whose 24-year-old son, Scott, was murdered in 1987. “The death penalty is effectively a sentence to legal limbo for victims’ family members.
“Families never forget, but they are entitled to begin to discover life again rather than to face a 15-20 year sentence of their own.”
In May, Vicki Schieber took part in a press conference introducing PMC and SB 850. Vicki’s daughter, Shannon, was killed in Philadelphia while attending Penn, and Vicki and her husband, Sylvester, opposed the death penalty for Shannon’s killer, who is now serving a life term.
Andy in Harrisburg