Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania

Virginia, Pennsylvania Death Rows Smallest in a Quarter Century as Death Sentences Show Long-Term Decline

Death rows are shrinking nationwide, and the experience in states like Virginia and Pennsylvania helps explain why. Virginia's death row has fallen from a reported high of 58 in 1995 to four in September 2017, the lowest it has been since 1979. Pennsylvania's death row of 160 prisoners is its smallest in nearly 25 years—down from 175 last December and from a reported 247 in April 2002. These declines mirror the national trends, as the number of prisoners removed from death row continues to outstrip the number of new death sentences imposed. In May 2017, a Bureau of Justice Statistics report showed that the population of death row nationwide had decreased for 15 consecutive years. Although Virginia has executed more prisoners since 1976 than any other state but Texas, executions do not by themselves account for the magnitude of the decline, and Pennsylvania's death row has shrunk despite not having executed anyone this century. A combination of exonerations, court decisions overturning death sentences, commutations, and deaths while appeals were underway have also removed significant numbers of prisoners from the two Commonwealths' death rows. Moreover, as in states like Georgia and Missouri that have been among the nation's most prolific recent executioners, the increase in executions has been accompanied by a decrease in the number of new death sentences imposed by juries. State Delegate Robert B. Bell, a death-penalty proponent who chairs the Virginia State Crime Commission, said obtaining the death penalty has become “an arduous endeavor for prosecutors,” requiring expenditures of staff time and financial resources that small counties cannot afford. As in Georgia and Texas, which have experienced major declines in new death sentences, Virginia also has made trials fairer by creating regional capital defense offices that provide better representation to indigent defendants at trial and by informing juries that capital defendants who are sentenced to life in prison will not be eligible for parole. Low murder rates and historically low public support for the death penalty also have contributed to the decline in new death sentences. In Pennsylvania, more than fifty defendants have been removed from death row in the past decade as their convictions or death sentences were overturned and they were resentenced to terms of life or less, and more have had their sentences overturned in the interim. Recently, the removal of prisoners from the Commonwealth's death row accelerated after a federal appeals court struck down the state's long-standing practice of automatically keeping capital defendants in solitary confinement until they had completed their retrial or resentencing proceedings, even after courts had overturned their death sentences.

Divided Pennsylvania Court Upholds New Sentencing Hearing in Judicial Bias Case Overturned by U.S. Supreme Court

In a case that led to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision on judicial bias, a divided Pennsylvania Supreme Court on August 22 upheld a lower court's order overturning the death penalty imposed on Terrance Williams (pictured) for the murder of a Philadelphia church deacon. The court split 2-2 on the outcome of a new appeal that had been ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court after former Philadelphia District Attorney Ronald Castille—who had personally authorized seeking the death penalty against Williams—participated as a state supreme court justice in deciding a 2014 appeal that reinstated the death penalty against Williams. Under court rules, the tie vote left in place a 2012 decision by a Philadelphia trial court judge that had granted Williams a new penalty hearing. Three other justices who had participated with former Justice Castille in deciding the 2014 appeal recused themselves from the new appeal. In 1984, Williams—then barely 18 years old—killed Amos Norwood, who Williams alleges had been sexually abusing him for years. The teen never met his defense lawyer until shortly before the trial and did not confide in him that he had been sexually abused. Instead, Williams testified that he was innocent and had never met Norwood. With Williams facing an execution warrant in 2012, the state's lead witness, Marc Draper—a childhood friend of Williams and a co-defendant in the case—came forward and admitted that prosecutors had instructed him to be silent about the sexual abuse and to testify that the murder had been part of a robbery. Williams filed a petition for clemency that drew support from Norwood’s widow, five of the jurors in the case, and advocates against child abuse. Three of the five members of the Pardons Board—including the state attorney general—voted in favor of clemency, but Pennsylvania law requires a unanimous vote before the governor has authority to commute a death sentence. Days before the scheduled execution, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina ordered the prosecution to turn over its files to her to determine whether they contained any evidence that should have been disclosed to the defense. The files contained evidence that prosecutors had presented false testimony from Draper; withheld evidence that it had given him favorable treatment for his testimony; suppressed evidence that Norwood had sexually abused Williams and other boys; and misrepresented to the jury that Norwood had been simply a "kind man" and "innocent" good Samaritan who had been murdered after offering Williams a ride home. Judge Sarmina upheld Williams' conviction, but ruled that the combination of the government's suppression of exculpatory evidence and deliberate false argument to the jury denied Williams a fair sentencing decision. Williams was facing a new execution date when Governor Tom Wolf issued a reprieve and imposed a moratorium on executions in February 2015. The Philadelphia District Attorney's office challenged the governor's use of the reprieve power, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Williams's favor in December 2015.  Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Williams's judicial bias claim. The case now returns to Judge Sarmina for resentencing proceedings. Williams’s lawyer, Shawn Nolan, who heads the Philadelphia federal defender's capital habeas unit, thanked the court for its decision and urged the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office to drop the death penalty in the case. “[T]hey should never have sought death against a teenager who killed his sexual abuser,” Nolan said.

Pennsylvania Prosecutors Give Up Death Penalty in Murder of 4 to Learn Location of Missing Victim

Bucks County, Pennsylvania prosecutors have agreed not to seek the death penalty for defendant Cosmo DiNardo (pictured), in exchange for his confession to a quadruple murder, information implicating an accomplice, and information permitting authorities to recover the body of one of the victims. The deal was made quickly—just one week after the beginning of the investigation into the disappearance of the four young men and the discovery of three of the bodies—to end the uncertainty faced by the victims' families. Pennsylvania defense attorney Marc Bookman said, “The defense is giving the prosecutor something compelling. He said he would direct them to where the bodies are. You’ve got four grieving families who desperately want closure, however sad that closure might be. And he’s asking for something in exchange.” All of the victims' families supported the deal, according to Mark Potash, whose son, Mark Sturgis, was killed. “Without the confession, we would have wound up leaving a boy missing. It took about half a second for all of us to agree,” he said. Former Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham—who a 2016 report by Harvard's Fair Punishment Project described as one of America's "deadliest prosecutors"—said that avoiding a death penalty trial and appeals would save, “hundreds of thousands, if not millions” of dollars. The deal, which won praise from both defense lawyers and prosecutors, highlights an on-going concern about systemic arbitrariness in the way the death penalty is administered: highly culpable murderers who have information leading to the discovery of additional victims or solving other murders may be able to avoid a death sentence, in spite of the seriousness of the crime, while less culpable defendants are sentenced to death for less serious murders. Earlier this year, Todd Kohlhepp avoided a death sentence by pleading guilty to seven murders in South Carolina, providing information that helped solve four cases. "Green River" killer Gary Ridgway made a similar deal in Washington in 2003, pleading guilty to 48 murders and helping investigators find the remains of numerous missing victims.

New Generation of Prosecutors May Signal Shift in Death Penalty Policies

A new generation of prosecutors, elected across the country on a platform of criminal justice reform, are taking a different approach to criminal justice policies than their predecessors, including a reduction in the use of capital punishment. A Christian Science Monitor profile of these prosecutors—focusing on Mark Gonzalez (pictured), the Nueces County, Texas, district attorney—says "[f]rom Texas to Florida to Illinois, many of these young prosecutors are eschewing the death penalty, talking rehabilitation as much as punishment, and often refusing to charge people for minor offenses." Their reform measures not only create greater opportunities for rehabilitation of offenders, but also reduce costs for the county and state governments. Stanford Law Professor David Alan Sklansky said, “It does seem to be a new and significant phenomenon. It’s rare to see so many races where the district attorney is challenged, where they lose, and where they lost to candidates calling not for harsher approaches, but for more balanced and thoughtful, more restrained, more progressive approaches to punishment.” In 2016, several new prosecutors who ran on reform platforms in major death-penalty counties defeated entrenched incumbents: Kim Ogg in Harris County, Texas; Andrew Warren in Hillsborough County, Florida; and Charles Henderson in Jefferson County, Alabama all pledged to reduce the use of capital punishment. Caddo Parish, Louisiana's District Attorney James Stewart, elected in 2015, has backed away from that parish's aggressive use of the death penalty while Denver District Attorney Beth McCann and Orlando State Attorney Aramis Ayala, both elected in 2016, have said they would not pursue the death penalty. In May 2017, Larry Krasner, a death-penalty opponent, won the Democratic nomination for Philadelphia District Attorney, making him the favorite to win the general election in November. Kim Ogg described the reasons for her support of criminal-justice reform, saying, “In the last decade the American people have literally lost faith in the fairness of our justice system. If they think we’re rigging the system, or trying to force outcomes, then they’re not going to participate, and to me that is a huge threat to our democracy.” Gonzalez says he has not decided how he will approach the death penalty, and in the meantime is still filing death penalty cases. But, he says, “We’re trying to change things. ... The culture is changing.”

30 Years After Murder, 14 Years After Supreme Court Ruling, Pennsylvania Drops Death Penalty At Request of Victim's Family

Thirty years after the crime that sent him to Pennsylvania's death row and 15 years after his case was argued in the U.S. Supreme Court, David Sattazahn was resentenced to life without parole—the sentence he initially received in his first trial in 1991. Prosecutors, defense attorneys, and the victim's family all agreed that a life sentence was the best outcome at this point in the case. Sattazahn was convicted of first-degree murder and the court sentenced him to life in prison in 1991 when his Berks County sentencing jury split 9-3 in favor of a life sentence. After his life sentence, Sattazahn pled guilty to several unrelated felony charges. His murder conviction was then overturned as a result of prejudicially inaccurate jury instructions, and in his retrial, prosecutors again sought the death penalty, using his guilty pleas as a new aggravating circumstance. In 1999, he was retried and sentenced to death, becoming the first death-after-life-sentenced defendant under Pennsylvania's death penalty statute. His appeal in that trial reached the U.S. Supreme Court (argument, pictured), which ruled 5-4 in 2003 that the non-unanimous jury vote in his case did not constitute a finding rejecting the death penalty, even though it had resulted in a life sentence. As a consequence, the Court wrote, subjecting Sattazahn to a second capital prosecution did not violate the Double Jeopardy clause of the U.S. Constitution. Sattazahn's 1999 death sentence was overturned in 2006 because of ineffective assistance of counsel. Faced with the possibility of a third sentencing hearing and additional appeals, the family of murder victim Richard Boyer, Sr. agreed that dropping the death penalty in favor of life without parole would help bring them closure. “Every time we try to get on with our lives, we're back in court, reliving that night again and again. There has to be an end to this madness,” said Barbara Spatz, Boyer's sister. Senior Deputy Attorney General Anthony Forray said his office consulted with Boyer's four children and four siblings before deciding to drop the death penalty. “No family should have to go through this,” Forray said. “The commonwealth believes that what is occurring today is the appropriate thing to occur if this family is ever going to have closure and if this is ever going to come to an end.” At a May 24, 2017 hearing in Reading, Pennsylvania, the Berks County Court of Common Pleas formally resentenced Sattazahn to life.

Reform Candidate Who Opposes Death Penalty Wins Democratic Nomination for Philadelphia District Attorney

In a repudiation of the city's past history as one of the nation's leading producers of death sentences, Philadelphia has joined the trend of major national jurisdictions to select reform candidates who have pledged to limit or eliminate use of the death penalty. On May 16, primary voters in the overwhelmingly Democratic city selected long-time civil rights lawyer Lawrence Krasner (pictured) as the Democratic nominee for District Attorney. Krasner, a defense attorney who entered the public's eye representing protesters from Occupy Philadelphia and Black Lives Matter, ran on a platform of sweeping criminal justice reform, including a vow never to seek the death penalty. His campaign website states, "He knows that capital punishment is expensive, ineffective, and racially biased. Since its reinstatement by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976, it has cost Pennsylvania taxpayers over $1 billion, yet no one on Pennsylvania’s death row has been put to death involuntarily since 1962. Meanwhile six people on death row have been exonerated." Because Democrats hold a 7-1 registration edge over Republicans, Krasner is considered a prohibitive favorite to defeat Republican nominee Beth Grossman, a former assistant district attorney, in November's general election. Philadelphia is among the 2% of U.S. counties responsible for 56% of the nation's death row population, and its former longtime District Attorney Lynne Abraham was named one of "America's Five Deadliest Prosecutors" for overseeing the imposition of 108 death sentences. Krasner's nomination continues a trend among voters in major cities replacing prosecutorial regimes perceived as overaggressively pursuing the death penalty. In November 2015 runoff election, voters in Caddo Parish (Shreveport), Louisiana elected their first African American District Attorney, James Stewart, after acting District Attorney Dale Cox said the state should use "kill more people" with the death penalty. Last August, in a landslide election described as reshaping the political landscape of Northeast Florida, Republican primary voters in Duval County (Jacksonville) replaced controversial State Attorney Angela Corey with reform candidate Melissa Nelson. Then, in the November general election, voters in three more counties known for their outlier practices on the death penalty—Harris County (Houston), Texas, Hillsborough County (Tampa), Florida; and Jefferson County (Birmingham), Alabama—replaced incumbents with challengers running on reform platforms. Among Krasner's other reform proposals are reviewing past convictions for accuracy and ensuring that potentially exculpatory evidence is never withheld from defendants, taking a stronger stance against police misconduct, and ending stop-and-frisk.

Two Philadelphia Detectives, Three Wrongful Capital Prosecutions

On May 13, 2017, James "Jimmy" Dennis (pictured, center, with some of his defense team) was released from prison after more than 25 years on Pennsylvania's death row. His release marked the culmination of three unrelated wrongful capital prosecutions in Philadelphia in the early-1990s, with the common thread a pattern of misconduct by the same two Philadelphia homicide detectives. Dennis, Anthony Wright, and Percy St. George were all capitally charged for murder in cases investigated by Detectives Manuel Santiago and Frank Jastrzembski. Dennis was convicted and sentenced to death, Wright was convicted and sentenced to life without parole when his death penalty jury could not agree on a sentence, and capital charges against St. George were dismissed before he went to trial. Misconduct in Wright and Dennis' trials led courts to overturn their convictions decades later. The detectives' misconduct came to light in the St. George case when one supposed eyewitness told St. George's attorneys that he had identified St. George only because "[Santiago] told me that I could get locked up, so I was scared, because I had never been locked up before." As other questionable conduct was discovered, Detectives Santiago and Jastrzembski invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and the charges against St. George were dropped. Wright was initially convicted of rape and murder based upon an unrecorded fabricated confession that Santiago purported to have taken and clothing matching those Wright supposedly had admitted to have worn during the crime. Jastrembski claimed to have found those clothes hidden under Wright’s bed. DNA testing later established that the clothes had actually been worn by the victim, not Wright, suggesting that police had fabricated the confession and planted the clothing to incriminate Wright. Jastrembski and Santiago were also implicated in misconduct in Dennis' case, suppressing evidence that Dennis was not the killer. The two detectives had been asked to follow up on a statement a county prisoner named William Frazier had given to police saying that a friend of his had confessed to committing the murder with two other men. The detectives spoke to one of the three potential suspects, who fit the description offered by another eyewitness, but contradicted the prosecution's case against Dennis. That information was withheld from Dennis' defense. Jastrembski also claimed to have seized clothes from Dennis' house that fit the description of the clothes eyewitnesses said the killer had worn, but told the state post-conviction court that the clothes had since been thrown in the trash by cleaners. Even after courts overturned Wright's and Dennis' convictions, the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office continued to pursue charges against them. Even after Wright was acquitted in August 2016, a prosecution spokesperson continued to assert that "the evidence was sufficient to prove Anthony Wright participated in the murder of Louise Talley." In December 2016, facing a capital retrial, Dennis made the difficult decision to plead no contest to lesser charges. He was resentenced to time served, but his release was delayed as he awaited parole on unrelated charges. The Innocence Project and a Philadelphia civil rights law firm have filed a lawsuit against the city and 11 police officers, including Detectives Santiago and Jastrzembski, alleging a pervasive pattern of unconstitutional misconduct, including in the cases of Wright, Dennis, and St. George.

BOOKS: "The Trials of Walter Ogrod" Chronicles Pennsylvania Possible Innocence Case

Walter Ogrod was convicted and sentenced to death in Philadelphia in 1996 for the 1988 murder of a 4-year-old girl, whose body was found in a discarded television box. Ogrod, who is developmentally disabled, has long maintained his innocence, but despite significant irregularities in the case and amidst allegations of official misconduct, local prosecutors have fought efforts to obtain DNA testing of the physical evidence and to investigate the role a discredited prison informant played in implicating Ogrod. A new book, "The Trials of Walter Ogrod," by Tom Lowenstein chronicles the crime, the trial, and the failures of the criminal justice system in Ogrod's case. The book tells how a Philadelphia homicide detective interrogated the intellectually limited Ogrod for more than 14 hours before Ogrod signed a 16-page confession that was written by the detective and that was filled with emotionally-laden language Ogrod—with an autism spectrum disorder—would not have used. Ogrod's court proceedings have been controversial from the outset. The jury in Ogrod's 1993 trial voted to acquit, but as the verdict was being read, one juror called out that he had changed his mind, causing a mistrial. Before the second trial, Ogrod was placed with a prison cellmate named John Hall, a snitch so notorious for producing confessions that he was nicknamed "The Monsignor." Hall claimed that Ogrod had confessed to him, giving a story that was completely different from the written confession extracted by detectives and used in the first trial. Hall also introduced Ogrod to a second informant, who received leniency in his own case after claiming Ogrod had made a confession similar to the story Hall had reported. Ogrod did not match witness descriptions of the likely perpetrator and no physical evidence linked him to the crime, but a jury convicted him in a retrial in 1996 based upon the informant testimony. A year later, Hall was discredited after being caught fabricating a confession in another high profile Philadelphia murder case. Ogrod's lawyers have sought DNA testing of fingernail scrapings taken from the victim, but prosecutors and courts have blocked their efforts. Philadelphia is in the midst of a campaign for District Attorney, and Lowenstein believes the next person elected to that office should take another look at Ogrod's case and several others like it, in which prosecutors used jailhouse snitches and high-pressure interrogations to obtain convictions. "What I would like to see is the next DA in Philadelphia do a thorough review of death-penalty and life-imprisonment cases from the 1990s," he said. "There was a systemic problem with how that DA’s office was prosecuting people."

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