Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania

Pittsburgh Rabbi’s Wife Opposes Death Penalty for Tree of Life Synagogue Killings

Beth Kissileff (pictured), a writer and the wife of a rabbi who survived the shooting rampage that killed eleven worshippers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, has asked the U.S. Department of Justice not to seek the death penalty against the man charged with committing those murders. In an opinion article for the Religion News Service, Kissileff wrote that she and her husband, Rabbi Jonathan Perlman of Pittsburgh’s New Light Congregation, engaged federal prosecutors and a social worker who had come to discuss the trial of the white supremacist accused of the act of domestic terrorism in “a discussion of Jewish concepts of justice.” Three members of the New Light Congregation were among those murdered in the synagogue. Rabbi Perlman, Kissileff wrote, told the prosecution team: “Our Bible has many laws about why people should be put to death. … But our sages and rabbis decided that after biblical times these deaths mean death at the hands of heaven, not a human court.” She writes, “if as religious people we believe that life is sacred, how can we be permitted to take a life, even the life of someone who has committed horrible actions?”

Kissileff bases her conclusion that a sentence of life without parole for the synagogue shooting is more appropriate than death both on Jewish teachings against the death penalty and on her hope that the killer might yet change his white supremacist beliefs. She wrote in an article for The Jerusalem Post that “[w]hen Jews are killed just for being Jewish, we commemorate them with the words ‘Hashem yikom damam,’ may God avenge their blood. This formulation absents us from the equation since it expresses that it is God’s responsibility, not ours, to seek ultimate justice. As humans, we are incapable of meting out true justice when a monstrous crime has been committed.” She explains that, although the Torah calls for a death sentence for some crimes, Jewish tradition teaches that death sentences should be very rare, if they are allowed at all. She writes that “a Jewish court is considered bloodthirsty if it allows the death penalty to be carried out [even] once every 70 years.”

Though recognizing that repentance is rare, Kissileff said nonetheless “[t]here is always a chance for redemption. Calling for the death penalty means there is no possibility for the shooter to repent, to change or to improve. I would rather not foreclose that possibility of change, slim as it may be, by putting someone to death.” She recounted the cases of white nationalists Derek Black, who renounced his hatred of Jews after being invited to Shabbat dinners by Jewish students at his college, and Arno Michaelis, a former skinhead leader who later co-authored a book on forgiveness with a man whose father was among the seven congregants murdered in a hate attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Referring to these examples, Kissileff said “[n]either [man] might have been expected to change their beliefs, and yet they have.”

Kissileff’s articles describe the legacy of those who were killed in the Pittsburgh attack and how the shooting has inspired others to become more involved in the synagogue and to learn more about their Jewish faith: “Creating more knowledge of what Judaism and Jewish values are, and encouraging more Jews to commit to them, is the most profound way to avenge their blood.” She writes that, “rather than seeking the shooter’s death,” a better response for Jews would be “strengthening other Jews and Jewish life in Pittsburgh and around the world. Doing so will mean that Jews, not forces of evil, have the ultimate victory.” She concludes: “The most important vengeance for the murder of 11 Jews or 6 million is for the Jewish people to live and the Torah to live, not for their killer to die.”

Study Reports More Than Three-Fold Drop in Pursuit of Death Penalty by Pennsylvania Prosecutors

A new study of fourteen years of Pennsylvania murder convictions has documented a sharp decline in county prosecutors’ use of capital punishment across the Commonwealth. After examining the court files of 4,184 murder convictions from 2004 to 2017, the Allentown Morning Call found that Pennsylvania prosecutors sought the death penalty at more than triple the rate (3.3) at the start of the study period than they did fourteen years later — a drop of more than 70%. In 2004, the paper reported, prosecutors sought the death penalty in 123 of 309 (39.8%) murder cases that ultimately resulted in a conviction. In 2017, they sought it in 33 of 271 cases (12.2%). While there were some year-to-year fluctuations in death-penalty usage over the 14-year period, the pattern showed a clear long-term downward trend. Though most (59) of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties had at least one capital prosecution, the change was largely driven by the steep decline in the pursuit of the death penalty in Philadelphia. The city, which had 88 prisoners on its death row in January 2013 — the third highest of any city or county in the country — dropped from seeking death in more than half of all murder convictions (69 out of 134) in 2004 to 15% of the cases (16 out of 106) in 2017. The Morning Call reported that of the more than 1,100 case files of capital prosecutions it reviewed, 56 resulted in death sentences during the study period. The rest ended in plea bargains or sentences other than death.

The decline in capital prosecutions accompanies a twenty-year hiatus in executions in Pennsylvania during which the state and federal courts have overturned nearly 200 Pennsylvania capital convictions or death sentences, and a drop in public support for the death penalty. A 2015 poll by Public Policy Polling reported that 54% of Pennsylvania respondents said they preferred some form of life sentence as the punishment for murder, as compared to 42% who said they preferred the death penalty. Death sentences have also plummeted by nearly 90%. According to statistics from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, the state imposed an average of 15.8 death sentences per year in the five-year period from 1989-1993. But by 2004-2008, the average had fallen to 5.2 death sentences per year, and it dropped to only 1.8 death sentences per year from 2014-2018.

Prosecutors “are scrutinizing these decisions much more than ever before,” said Berks County District Attorney John T. Adams, former president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association. “All of us are very cognizant of the fact that there’s a lot that we as prosecutors are asked to do as far as seeking the death penalty.” Marc Bookman, co-director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, which advises lawyers who are handling death-penalty trials, said, “Mostly it is just a recognition that it is a failed public policy. We’re seeing it more and more coming from elected officials, saying it is a failed public policy.” Governor Tom Wolf imposed a moratorium on executions in 2015, and said he intends to extend that moratorium until the legislature addresses problems identified by the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment. “He looks forward to working with the General Assembly on their plans to address the report and its recommendations for legislative changes, all of which he believes should be debated and considered,” the governor’s spokesperson said in a statement.

Record Lows Set Across the U.S. For Death Sentences Imposed in 2018

2018 was a record-low year for death-penalty usage in the United States, as nineteen death-penalty states set or matched records for the fewest new death sentences imposed in the modern history of U.S. capital punishment. (Click on map to enlarge.) Thirty-six U.S. states—including seventeen that authorized capital punishment in 2018—did not impose any death sentences in 2018, while California and Pennsylvania, which collectively account for nearly one-third of the nation’s death-row population, imposed record lows. Every western state except Arizona set or tied a record low, and Arizona, which imposed two new death sentences, was just one above its record low. Several southern states that were once among the heaviest users of capital punishment have now gone years without imposing any new death sentences.

For the first time in its modern history, North Carolina has gone two consecutive years without a death sentence, and it has imposed one new death sentence in the past four years. Only three capital trials took place in the state in 2018, and jurors rejected the death penalty in each. Gretchen Engel, executive director of North Carolina’s Center for Death Penalty Litigation, said, "Jurors are turning away from the death penalty and, in response to less favorable jury pools, prosecutors are seeking the death penalty less. And so, this trend away from the death penalty is really being led by citizens who've been summoned for jury duty." In Wake County (Raleigh), one of the 2% of U.S. counties that was responsible for a majority of death-row prisoners as of 2013, the last nine capital trials—including one in 2018—have resulted in life sentences. According to the North Carolina Office of Indigent Defense Services, taxpayers would have saved $2.4 million if prosecutors had not sought the death penalty in those cases. For the seventh consecutive year, Virginia did not sentence anyone to death in 2018. Though second only to Texas in the number of executions, Virginia has seen a dramatic decline in death sentences since establishing regional capital defender offices to provide quality representation to capital defendants. Georgia and South Carolina each marked four years with no new death sentences, a change that can also be attributed, at least in part, to improved representation.

Two of the states with the nation’s largest death rows, California and Pennsylvania, had historically low numbers of death sentences in 2018. California imposed only five death sentences, its fewest since reinstating the death penalty in 1978 and 38 fewer than its peak of 43 in 1999. Pennsylvania imposed a single death sentence for only the second time in the modern era. The previous year in which only one sentence was imposed was 2016. Neither state has carried out an execution in more than a decade, but California has the largest death row in the U.S., with 740 prisoners, and Pennsylvania has the fifth-largest, with 160.

DPIC Analysis: The Decline of the Death Penalty in Philadelphia

During his election campaign, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner described the economic wastefulness of city prosecutors' pursuit of the death penalty as "lighting money on fire." A DPIC analysis of the outcomes of the more than 200 death sentences imposed in the city since 1978 (click image to enlarge) and the last seven years of capital prosecution outcomes provides strong support for Krasner's claim. Data tracking the final dispositions of cases in which Pennsylvania prosecutors had provided notice of intent to seek the death penalty showed that between 2011 and 2017, 98.7% of the 225 cases in which Philadelphia prosecutors had sought the death penalty ended with a non-capital outcome. Similarly, 99.5% of the 201 death sentences imposed in the city—mostly in the 1980s and 1990s—have not resulted in an execution. Two thirds of the convictions or death sentences have already been reversed in the courts and 115 of the former death-row prisoners have since been resentenced either to life sentences (101) or a term of years (11) or been exonerated (3). The single execution was of a severely mentally ill man whom courts initially found incompetent to waive his rights, but was later permitted to be executed.

DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham announced the results of the DPIC analysis at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia at a news conference conducted by the death-row exonerees' organization Witness to Innocence. Dunham said that the data showed Philadelphia's pursuit of the death penalty has been "a colossally inefficient" waste of judicial resources and "a colossal waste of money." 

Death sentences imposed in Philadelphia peaked in the first term of District Attorney Ronald Castille's administration in 1986-1989, when an average of 11.25 death sentences per year were imposed. 99 more death sentences were imposed in the decade of the 1990s. By 2001, 135 prisoners were on Philadelphia's death row, and the 113 African Americans on its death row were more than in any other county in the United States. Since then, death sentencing rates have plummetted, falling to 1.5 per year in 2006-2009, the final term of District Attorney Lynn Abraham's administration, and to fewer than one a year this decade, during the administration of Seth Williams. But even as the number of death sentences fell, the proportion of defendants of color sentenced to death in Philadelphia increased. In the past two decades, 82.6% of the defendants sentenced to death in Philadelphia have been African American. Of the 46 defendants sentenced to death in Philadelphia since 1997, 44 (95.7%) have been defendants of color. 

Krasner's campaign pledge not to use the death penalty, Dunham said, was a "natural conclusion" of the steep decline in death penalty usage in the city.

2018 Midterm Elections: Governors in Moratorium States Re-Elected, Controversial California D.A. Ousted

The results of the November 6, 2018 mid-term elections reflected America's deeply divided views on capital punishment, as voters elected governors who pledged not to resume executions in the three states with death-penalty moratoriums, defeated an incumbent who tried to bring back capital punishment in a non-death-penalty state (click on graphic to enlarge), and re-elected governors who had vetoed legislation abolishing capital punishment in two other states. Continuing a national trend, voters in Orange County, California ousted their scandal-plagued top prosecutor, marking the ninth time since 2015 that local voters have replaced prosecutors in jurisdictions with the nation's largest county death rows.

In the three states with Governor-imposed death-penalty moratoriums, candidates who said they would continue execution bans or work to eliminate the state’s death penalty won easily. Tom Wolf, the Democratic governor of Pennsylvania who imposed the state’s moratorium on executions in 2015, was re-elected by with 57.6% of the vote. His challenger, Scott Wagner, who had promised to resume executions and had advocated a mandatory death penalty for school shootings, trailed badly with 40.8% of the vote. Oregon's incumbent Democratic governor Kate Brown, who continued the state’s death-penalty moratorium instituted in 2011 by then-governor John Kitzhaber, won re-election in a six candidate field with 49.4% of the vote, five percentage points higher than her Republican challenger Knute Buehler. In Colorado, Democratic congressman Jared Polis, who campaigned on the repeal of the state’s death penalty, won the governorship with 51.6% of the vote, outpacing Republican state treasurer Walker Stapleton, who received 44.7% of the vote. Democrats also took control of both houses of the Colorado legislature, increasing the likelihood that legislation to abolish the death penalty will be considered in the upcoming legislative session. Illinois Republican Governor Bruce Rauner suffered an overwhelming election defeat at the hands of venture-capitalist J.B. Pritzker. Trailing badly in the polls, Rauner tried in May 2018 to condition passage of gun control legislation on reinstatement of the state’s death penalty. Pritzker outpolled Rauner by 54.0% to 39.3%.

On the other hand, two governors who prevented death-penalty repeal bills from going into effect in their states also won re-election. Nebraska's Republican Governor Pete Ricketts, who vetoed a bipartisan bill to abolish the state's death penalty in 2015 and then, after the legislature overrode his veto, personally bankrolled a successful state-wide referendum in 2016 to block the repeal, cruised to re-election with 59.4% of the vote. New Hampshire Republican Governor Chris Sununu, who vetoed the state’s death-penalty repeal bill in March 2018, won re-election with 52.4% of the vote. In Florida, Republican Ron DeSantis won the governorship against Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum, who had pledged, if elected, to suspend executions in Florida until he was sure the death-penalty system was nondiscriminatorily applied.

Local voters in Orange County replaced District Attorney Tony Rackauckas with a political rival, county supervisor Todd Spitzer. Rackauckas has been embroiled in a scandal involving the secret use of prison informants to obtain or manufacture confessions from suspects and then stonewalling investigation of the multi-decade illegal practice.  As of January 2013, Orange County had the seventh largest death row of any county in the U.S., and since then, it has imposed the fourth most death sentences of any county. 

Death Off the Table for Four Former Death-Row Prisoners, as Death Row Continues to Shrink Nationwide

In a period of less than one week, four former death-row prisoners in four separate states learned that they no longer face execution, contributing to the continuing decline in the number of people on death rows across the U.S. The result of the unrelated court proceedings—a resentencing hearing in Pennsylvania, a non-capital grand jury indictment in Louisiana, a prosecutor’s decision to drop death in Indiana, and a court ruling on intellectual disability in Alabama—illustrate the ongoing erosion of the death-row population in America, which has fallen in size in each of the past 17 years. On September 10, 2018, Daniel Saranchak (pictured, left) was resentenced to life without parole in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, following the reversal of his death sentence by a federal court in October 2015. That court said Saranchak had been provided ineffective representation in the penalty phase of his original trial in 1994 and granted him a new sentencing hearing. In November 2000, Saranchak came within 45 minutes of being executed before receiving a stay. Three days after Saranchak’s resentencing, a Jefferson Parish, Louisiana grand jury returned a non-capital indictment against Teddy Chester (pictured, middle left), who had been sentenced to death in 1997. Chester was granted a new trial on June 11, 2018 based on evidence of his counsel’s failure to challenge the prosecution case against him and DNA evidence that had not been presented to Chester’s trial jury suggesting that he is not the killer. Chester and his co-defendant, Elbert Ratcliff, each claim that the other shot cab driver John Adams in order to rob him. The grand jury indicted Chester for second-degree murder, which carries an automatic life sentence if convicted. Ratcliff was previously convicted of second-degree murder. On September 14, a St. Joseph County, Indiana trial judge approved the prosecution’s motion to remove the death penalty as a possible punishment against Wayne Kubsch (pictured, middle right). Kubsch will face a maximum sentence of life without parole at his third trial in a 1998 triple homicide. Kubsch maintains his innocence, and his second conviction was overturned because “critical evidence” was withheld. The victims’ families supported the prosecution’s decision to seek a life sentence. “I believe this is the right decision,” said Diane Mauk, mother of victim Beth Kubsch. “I feel that in the state of Indiana it would be another 15 years or more before an execution would take place, if it ever happened. ... It’s time to get justice for our families.” And also on September 14, the Alabama Supreme Court found death-row prisoner Anthony Lane (pictured, right) ineligible for the death penalty because of intellectual disability, vacated his death sentence, and directed the trial court in Jefferson County to resentence Lane to life without parole. The Alabama state courts had previously rejected Lane's claim of intellectual disability, but had applied an unconstitutional and scientifically unsupported definition of intellectual disability in reaching that conclusion. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed that ruling in 2015 and returned the case to the state courts to decide the issue using an appropriate standard.

A Bureau of Justice Statistics brief on May 20, 2017 and DPIC's year end reports in 2016 and 2017 have shown that removals from death row—mostly in the form of resentencings—have outstripped new death sentences every year since 2001.

Pennsylvania's Death Row Continues to Shrink With Plea Deal for Ronald Champney

Nineteen years after having been sentenced to death in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, and five years after winning a new trial, Ronald Champney entered a no-contest plea to lesser charges in a plea deal that could soon set him free. Under the plea deal, which the court accepted on August 10, 2018, Champney agreed—without admitting guilt—that prosecutors had sufficient evidence for a jury to convict him of third-degree murder and possessing instruments of crime, and prosecutors withdrew charges of first-degree murder, burglary, aggravated assault, and other related offenses. The court resentenced Champney to a term of 10 to 20 years imprisonment, much of which he has already served. With death-penalty reversals and non-capital resentencings far outstripping new death sentences, Pennsylvania's death row has fallen by 100 in the last 16 years—from 247 in April 2002 to 147 on August 1, 2018—without any executions. 170 Pennsylvania death-row prisoners have overturned their convictions or death sentences in state or federal post-conviction proceedings and Pennsylvania's state courts have reversed an additional 100 death sentences on direct appeal. Champney's case is one of 139 of the cases reversed in post-conviction to have completed retrial or resentencing, and he is one of the 135 defendants (97.1%) to be resentenced to life or less or acquitted. Of the prisoners who were resentenced to death, only three are still on death row, and another died before his post-conviction challenges to that sentence were adjudicated. Champney was convicted and sentenced to death in 1999 for a murder that occurred in 1992. In June 2008, the trial court overturned his death sentence because his lawyer failed to object to the prosecution's presentation of victim-impact testimony that was not admissible under Pennsylvania law. The court also granted Champney a new trial, finding that his lawyer had been ineffective for failing to move to suppress statements police had improperly obtained from Champney while interrogating him without his lawyer being present. An equally divided Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the trial court's ruling in April 2013, setting the stage for the plea agreement. On June 25, the Pennsylvania state senate's Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment issued a report describing the Commonwealth's death-penalty system as seriously flawed and in need of major reform, in part because of high rates of constitutional error and substandard defense representation at trial.

Life Plea in Police Killing Highlights Turbulence Over Philadelphia Death-Penalty Reform

Two men charged with killing Philadelphia Police Sgt. Robert Wilson III have been sentenced to life without possibility of parole, plus an additional term of 50 to 100 years, as prosecutors in one of the nation’s largest death-penalty counties agreed not to seek the death penalty in exchange for the defendants’ guilty pleas. Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner (pictured) appeared in court on June 25 to personally explain the rationale behind the plea deal that ensures brothers Carlton Hipps and Ramone Williams will spend the rest of their lives in jail. Krasner told the court that the mothers of Sgt. Wilson’s two young children “do not want the death penalty” and that the plea deal would “minimize the re-traumatization” that would occur if they were exposed to a capital trial and lengthy appeals. Krasner said “[t]he death penalty in Pennsylvania is not what people think it is. The reality is people are not executed in Pennsylvania. They die in custody on death row.” The plea deal drew highly publicized criticism from the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police and other members of Wilson's family who wanted the death penalty to be pursued. It also provoked opposition from activists who said that Krasner’s use of the death penalty as leverage for the guilty pleas violated his campaign promise never to seek death sentences. The Philadelphia lodge of the FOP—who, along with former prosecutors who were fired from or left the DA’s office, have engaged in a prolonged public relations war against Krasner’s proposals for criminal-justice reform—called the plea deal “despicable.” On social media, it urged its members to attend the sentencing to “show support” for the Wilson family. Krasner said that the mothers of Wilson’s children had received threatening messages, which they believed were from the FOP, pressuring them to ask Krasner to seek the death penalty. Only family members who opposed the deal came to the court hearing. Krasner’s decision not to seek the death penalty comes in the wake of a twenty-year decline in Philadelphia’s use of capital punishment. The city imposed 99 death sentences in the 1990s, 21 in the first decade this century, and fewer than one every other year in the 2010s. Nearly 150 death sentences imposed in the city since the 1970s have been overturned, and there has been only a single execution. After highlighting the high cost of capital punishment, Krasner said, “A choice to waste money may be a choice to endanger police officers. And frankly, if you really want to get down to it, when did the death penalty prevent this outcome? The death penalty has not stopped it here. The death penalty has not stopped it in the past. And, every bit of scientific evidence indicates that it’s not going to stop it in the future.” A Death Penalty Information Center analysis of FBI murder data has shown that over the last three decades, police officers have been killed at a rate that is 1.37 times higher in states that currently have the death penalty than in states that have long abolished it.

Pages