Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania

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.

Report Finds Systemic Flaws, Recommends Major Reforms in Pennsylvania Death Penalty

Pennsylvania’s death-penalty system is seriously flawed and in need of major reform, according to a report released June 25, 2018, by the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment. The bipartisan task force and advisory committee—which consisted of legislators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, police chiefs, judges, and victims’ advocates—began work in 2012 and examined 17 issues related to the Commonwealth’s death penalty. Their years-long examination of topics such as costs, bias, innocence, proportionality, mental illness and intellectual disability, quality of representation, and impact on victims' families resulted in numerous policy reform recommendations. Ultimately, however, the committee concluded that certain problems are intractable: “There is no way to put procedural safeguards in place that will guarantee with 100% certainty that the Commonwealth will not execute an innocent person,” the report states. To address disparities in the quality of capital representation, the report recommends creating a state-funded capital defender office, which would represent capital defendants both at trial and on appeal. It also recommended exempting people with serious mental illness from being sentenced to death and having the court determine in advance of trial whether a capitally-charged defendant is intellectually disabled and therefore exempt from the death penalty. State Senator Daylin Leach, who served on the current task force and has sponsored death-penalty repeal bills, said, “The report concludes that our death penalty system is very expensive and lacks a way to ensure that innocent people will not be executed. Further, too many people on death row are economically or intellectually disadvantaged. And finally, there is no substantial evidence that capital punishment actually deters violent crime.” Marc Bookman, a defense attorney and co-director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, said, “Many people will conclude that having a death penalty in Pennsylvania simply doesn't make sense for moral, practical, or financial reasons. For those who still think it's worthwhile to keep it in place, the study documents the extensive work necessary to satisfy the constitutional requirements of fairness and due process, while minimizing the chances of error.” Pennsylvania District Attorney’s Association President John Adams attacked the report as “reflecting predetermined findings that restate the usual litany of opinions long-held by death penalty opponents and the majority of the commission’s members.” In a statement, he said: “Absent a broad perspective, intellectual honesty or a balanced approach to justice, the report will become nothing more than another political tool used in smear campaigns by those determined to dismantle the criminal justice system.” Governor Tom Wolf, who imposed a moratorium on executions in 2015, said he will review the report and its recommendations before taking action.

DPIC Study Shows 97% of Prisoners Who Overturn Pennsylvania Death Sentences Are Not Resentenced to Death

In Pennsylvania, death-row prisoners whose convictions or death sentences are overturned in state or federal post-conviction appeals are almost never resentenced to death, a new Death Penalty Information Center study has revealed. Since Pennsylvania adopted its current death-penalty statute in September 1978, post-conviction courts have reversed prisoners' capital convictions or death sentences in 170 cases. Defendants have faced capital retrials or resentencings in 137 of those cases, and 133 times—in more than 97% of the cases—they received non-capital dispositions ranging from life without parole to exoneration. Only four prisoners whose death sentences were reversed in post-conviction proceedings remain on death row. Philadelphia cases accounted for more than half of the post-conviction reversals (86 cases) and 54% of the non-capital case dispositions (72 cases). DPIC reviewed all of the cases in which Pennsylvania death-row prisoners have won post-conviction relief. Contrary to the often-expressed perception that most death-penalty reversals occur in federal courts, state courts reversed twice as many Pennsylvania capital convictions or death sentences as did their federal counterparts. Pennsylvania death-row prisoners obtained state post-conviction relief from their convictions or death sentences—and, in some instances, both—in 116 cases. State courts granted 18 post-conviction petitioners new trials and vacated 108 death sentences. Of the vacated sentences, the state courts granted 91 new sentencing hearings, and declared prisoners constitutionally ineligible for the death penalty in 17 cases. Life sentences were imposed in fifteen cases as a result of a prisoner's intellectual disability and in two cases because the prisoner had been younger than age 18 at the time of the offense. Federal courts granted Pennsylvania capital habeas corpus petitioners relief from their convictions and/or death sentences in 58 cases, awarding new trials in 24 cases and new sentencing hearings in 44. Three death-row prisoners who were granted penalty-phase relief in state court later overturned their convictions in federal court. One prisoner who was granted a new penalty-phase trial by the federal courts also overturned his conviction after the case was remanded back to the state courts. The DPIC study found that 86% of the reversed death-penalty cases  concluded with a non-capital resentencing to life without parole. Those included 89 cases resulting from sentencing pleas or prosecutorial decisions to drop the death penalty, 12 capital sentencing retrials that resulted in life sentences, and the 17 cases in which defendants were declared constitutionally ineligible to face the death penalty. Two formerly death-sentenced prisoners—Nicholas Yarris and Harold Wilson—were exonerated, and a third, Frederick Thomas, died on death row while Philadelphia prosecutors appealed a trial judges' ruling that new evidence presented in the post-conviction proceedings established that no jury would have convicted him. Thirteen prisoners—including several widely considered to be innocent—pled guilty or no contest to lesser murder charges and were sentenced to time served or to terms of years. Six have completed their sentences and two others have been released on parole. The DPIC study found that the odds were 33.25 to 1 against a prisoner who won post-conviction relief remaining on death row. Six defendants were resentenced to death, but two of those death sentences were later overturned and the defendant resentenced to life without parole. The remaining four death sentences are still on appeal. Calling Pennsylvania's death-penalty system "riddled with flaws, ...error prone, expensive, and anything but infallible," Govenor Tom Wolf in February 2015 imposed a moratorium on executions in the Commonwealth. The state has not carried out an execution since 1999.

After 22 Years, District Attorney’s Office to Examine Possible Innocence of Philadelphia Death-Row Prisoner

Twenty-two years after Walter Ogrod (pictured) was sentenced to death for a murder he insists he did not commit, a new Philadelphia District Attorney’s administration has dropped the office’s long-time opposition to Ogrod’s request for DNA testing and has referred the case for review by a revitalized Conviction Integrity Unit. As that review proceeds, an hour-long documentary on the case—aired April 8 as part of CNN’s Headline News Network series Death Row Stories—presents what Philadelphia Daily News columnist Will Bunch describes as “compelling evidence that the snitch testimony that the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office used to convict Ogrod was fabricated” and that the confession the intellectually impaired man gave to Philadelphia police was coerced. Ogrod was sentenced to death in 1996 for the high-profile 1988 murder of 4-year-old Barbara Jean Horn, whose body was found discarded in a television box on a Northeast Philadelphia street. No physical evidence linked Ogrod to the murder, but four years after the murder, police questioned the 25-year-old truck driver—variously described as “slow,” possibly autistic, and lacking “common sense”—for 14 hours, telling him he was repressing memories of the murder. In the documentary, a friend of Ogrod’s recounts that Ogrod signed a confession after police told him that if he didn’t, he would have to wait for a lawyer in a holding area with other prisoners and “you know what they do to child molesters down there.” Author Tom Lowenstein, who investigated the case and wrote the 2017 book The Trials of Walter Ogrod, says in the documentary that the 16-page confession, hand written by the detective, “is a flowing monologue of thought and process and description that Walter Ogrod is not capable of…. He could not have given the confession.” Ogrod was tried twice for the murder. In 1993, the jury in his first trial appeared to have acquitted him, filling out “not guilty” on the verdict sheet. But as the verdict was being read, one juror said he had changed his mind, resulting in a mistrial. Following the mistrial, Ogrod was celled with John Hall, a notorious (and later discredited) jailhouse informant nicknamed “The Monsignor” for his proclivity in producing confessions. Hall’s widow, Phyllis Hall, explains in the documentary that Hall introduced Ogrod to another prisoner, Jay Wolchansky, and worked with police and prosecutors to feed Wolchansky information to implicate Ogrod in the murder. Wolchansky then testified against Ogrod in his second trial, claiming that Ogrod had confessed. Phyllis Hall says her husband “would get some of the truth and he would sit in his cell and make up stories—and he was darned good at it.” For years, Philadelphia's district attorneys—first Lynne Abraham, who oversaw Ogrod’s prosecution, and later her successor, Seth Williams—fought requests from Ogrod’s lawyers to test DNA evidence that might prove his innocence. While campaigning for District Attorney in 2017, Krasner told Bunch “it is clear that for decades the practice and policy of the District Attorney’s Office has been to win convictions at any cost, too often at the cost of justice itself.” When he took office in January 2018, Krasner rankled many entrenched prosecutors by emphasizing a reform agenda that included a willingness to take a look at questionably obtained past convictions. Krasner has not spoken about the specifics of the Ogrod case, but told Bunch, “Four-year-old Barbara Jean Horn was murdered. If the wrong person went to death row for it—and I specify that I am saying if—then the person who did murder her walked free.”

After Supreme Court Denies Them Relief, Pennsylvania Death-Row Prisoners Resentenced to Life

Two former Pennsylvania death-row prisoners, whose death sentences were overturned by federal courts after the United States Supreme Court had ruled against them, have been resentenced to life without parole. On February 28, 2018, Scott Blystone (pictured) was resentenced to life by the Fayette County Court of Common Pleas in southwestern Pennsylvania, 34 years after being sentenced to death and 27 years after the U.S. Supreme Court heard his case. Two days later, on March 2, Joseph Kindler was also resentenced to life after the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office agreed to drop the death penalty in his case. Nearly 35 years had passed since Kindler had been sentenced to death and eight since the Supreme Court had ruled against him. Blystone's case was the first from Pennsylvania to challenge the state's law requiring the jury to sentence a defendant to death if it finds any aggravating circumstance present, but no mitigating circumstances. Blystone had been represented by a part-time public defender who had been practicing law for less than a year and had never tried a homicide case. The lawyer presented no defense at the guilt stage of trial and had no evidence to present in the penalty phase except for testimony from Blystone's parents. When Blystone refused to have his parents take the stand to beg for his life, the lawyer presented no case in mitigation. Even then, the jury asked the court whether it had to impose the death penalty if it found no mitigating evidence. The court answered in the affirmative, and the jury sentenced Blystone to death. In 1990, a divided U.S. Supreme Court upheld Pennsylvania's death-penalty statute by a 5-4 vote. The federal district court subsequently overturned Blystone's death sentence because of his lawyer's failure to investigate and present mitigating evidence of Blystone's brain damage, mental health diagnoses, and extreme mental and emotional disturbance at the time of the murder. Kindler also overturned his death sentence in the federal courts, after the Pennsylvania state courts had refused to consider Kindler's constitutional challenges to his conviction and sentence because he had escaped to Canada. The federal courts found multiple constitutional violations in Kindler's case, including that his lawyer had failed to investigate and present available mitigating evidence and that the jury had been given an instruction that unconstitutionally limited its ability to consider the mitigating evidence that had been presented. In a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2009 dealing with federal review of state procedural rules, the Court overturned the grant of a new penalty hearing and sent the case back to the federal court of appeals. The appeals court again ruled in Kindler's favor, and this time the Supreme Court let that decision stand. 

Pages