The American Bar Association today confirmed what many of us already knew. Pennsylvania’s death penalty has significant flaws. These flaws create a scenario in which an innocent person is at risk of execution.
The 324-page report urged the state to preserve biological evidence for post-trial DNA tests, videotape homicide investigations and implement modern witness-lineup techniques – three procedures the ABA said would add accuracy, integrity and efficiency to a process long maligned both by proponents and opponents of the death penalty.
The ABA study, crafted by five veteran Philadelphia-area lawyers, including a judge and a prosecutor, also criticized the state for failing to provide adequate lawyers and investigators for poor defendants at trial.
The study also said that the state has failed to address long-alleged racial and geographic disparities between defendants sentenced for similar crimes. In 2003, a committee appointed by the state Supreme Court to study racial and gender bias found “strong indications” that Pennsylvania does not “operate in an even-handed manner.”
ABA president William H. Neukom said it is “critical to correct” the problems because “it is important to have a fair and accurate process, not just for the accused but also for the victims and for the public.”
“It is important to understand that the shortcomings we identified operate with a cumulative effect,” (Villanova law professor Anne Bowen) Poulin said. “Fixing one or some of the problems will not make the system right, and it is absolutely vital to do the additional study of the system that our report calls for, so that reforms can be implemented that will provide us with real justice.”
Ah, conveniently, there is already a bill proposed that would create said study. Senate Bill 850 would empanel a commission to examine problems with capital punishment and suspend executions for two years while the study takes place.
The ABA has provided the state government with a great opportunity. They don’t have to believe the ACLU or the abolitionists or the church groups. The ABA, and the PA Supreme Court Committee on Racial and Gender Bias before them, is sending the warning signals. Let’s hope our state leaders are awake at the wheel. (I may have just mixed my metaphors there, but you get the point.)
Andy in Harrisburg