Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania

Pledging No Death Penalty, Larry Krasner Sworn In As Philadelphia's District Attorney

Saying “[a] movement was sworn in today,” long-time civil-rights lawyer Larry Krasner (pictured)—who pledged to end Philadelphia's use of the death penalty—took the oath of office on January 2 as district attorney in a county that only five years ago had the third largest death row of any county in the country. Krasner's inaugural address put a face on the “[t]ransformational change in criminal justice" he had called for during the election, saying it was time to begin “trading jails—and death row—for schools,” “jail cells occupied by people suffering from addiction for treatment and harm reduction,” and “division between police and the communities they serve for unity and reconciliation.” Krasner's election has drawn national attention, as social-justice activists focus on new strategies to bring about social change. The Los Angeles Times placed Krasner among "a growing list of district attorneys around the country ... who have declared that their role isn’t simply to prosecute, but to protect defendants from the excesses of the criminal justice system." The American Prospect described "[t]he relatively quick swing from a death penalty devotee to a crusading reformer at the helm of a major American city’s DA office [as] both a distillation of a long-brewing shift in the politics of crime—away from the standard tough-on-crime bromides and toward a smarter approach to justice—and emblematic of a new recognition from progressives that electing allies into DA offices could be one of the most effective ways to reform the system from the inside." Since 2015, "reform" prosecutors have been elected to replace prosecutors in counties historically known for their aggressive use of the death penalty, including Harris (Houston), Texas; Duval (Jacksonville), Orange (Orlando), and Hillsborough (Tampa), Florida; Caddo Parish (Shreveport), Louisiana; and Jefferson (Birmingham), Alabama. But Clarise McCants, campaign director for the racial-justice organization, Color of Change, is eyeing upcoming district attorney races in 2018, saying “[t]he small number of [reform-minded] prosecutors we have elected so far is nothing compared to the kind of impact we could have.” Krasner takes the reins of an office most recently headed by Ronald CastilleLynne Abraham, and Seth Williams. Castille served as district attorney from 1986-1991, obtaining 45 death sentences and then participating in appeals in those cases after being elected to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Abraham was dubbed “America's Deadliest DA,” obtaining 108 death sentences in her 19 years as district attorney between 1991 and 2009. She was replaced by Williams, who resigned after being convicted in 2017 of corruption charges. Krasner's election culminates two decades of dramatically declining death penalty use in Philadelphia. Death sentences, which averaged 9.9 per year in the 1990s, have fallen to an average of fewer than one per year this decade. 

Anti-Death Penalty District Attorney Elected in Philadelphia, the Nation's 3rd Largest Death Penalty County

Philadelphia, Pennsylvaniathe nation's third largest death-penalty county—has elected as its new district attorney a candidate who ran on a platform of ending mass incarceration and eschewing use of the death penalty. Democrat Lawrence Krasner (pictured), a longtime civil rights lawyer and opponent of the death penalty, who once joked that he’d “spent a career becoming completely unelectable,” received 75% of the vote in easily defeating his Republican opponent Beth Grossman. As a civil rights and criminal defense attorney, Krasner had represented political protesters and Black Lives Matter activists, and had sued the Philadelphia Police Department on numerous occasions. He has likened use of the death penalty to "lighting money on fire,” saying that capital punishment “has cost Pennsylvania taxpayers over $1 billion, yet no one on Pennsylvania’s death row has been put to death involuntarily since 1962.” A July 2015 DPIC analysis of death sentences imposed in Philadelphia reported that at least 148 death sentences imposed in the city since Pennsylvania reinstituted the death penalty in 1974 had been overturned. In that time, one prisoner from Philadelphia—who voluntarily dropped his appeals—was executed. Krasner called his election a "mandate" for "transformational change." He said, "[t]his is a story about a movement. And this is a movement that is tired of seeing a system that has systematically picked on poor people—primarily black and brown poor people." Those are the people who, historically, have been most disproportionately affected by Philadelphia's death penalty. A major study of Philadelphia's death penalty in the 1980s and 1990s documented that black capital defendants faced more than triple the odds of being sentenced to death than did other defendants, and that an estimated one-third of the more than 100 African Americans who were on the city's death row at the turn of the century would have received life sentences but for their race. Another study showed that death-sentencing in the city was heavily influenced by a defendant's physical appearance: the probability that a black defendant charged with killing a white victim would be sentenced to death doubled if the defendant was perceived as having "stereotypically African" physical features—darker skin, a broader nose, and thicker lips. Even as the number of death sentences imposed in Philadelphia has dramatically declined—falling from an average of 9.9 death sentences per year in the 1990s to less than one sentence per year this decade—the racial disproportionality of the death sentences imposed in the city has grown. Nine of the 99 death sentences imposed in Philadelphia in the 1990s were directed at white defendants, as compared to only one of the 25 death sentences imposed this century, and 45 of the last 47 people sentenced to death in the city have been defendants of color. 

Mississippi, Pennsylvania Courts Grant New Trials to Wrongly Condemned Prisoners

Appeals courts in Mississippi and Pennsylvania have granted new trials to two men who have long asserted their innocence of charges that had sent them to their states' death rows. On October 26, the Mississippi Supreme Court ordered a new trial for Sherwood Brown (pictured, left), after reviewing exculpatory results of DNA testing and evidence that Brown's triple-murder conviction and death sentence had been obtained as a result of misleading forensic testimony. On October 31, the Pennsylvania Superior Court granted a third trial to former death-row prisoner Daniel Dougherty (pictured, right), who had been wrongly convicted of setting a fire in which his two sons died, ruling that Philadelphia prosecutors improperly presented the same questionable arson testimony in his retrial that had caused his first conviction to be overturned in 2013. Brown was sentenced to death in 1995 for the sexual assault and murder of a 13-year-old girl and received life sentences for the murder of the girl's mother and grandmother. Prosecutors had argued that blood on Brown's shoes came from the victims, and a forensic bitemark expert had claimed that a bitemark on Brown's wrist matched the girl's bite pattern. In 2012, the Mississippi Supreme Court granted Brown's motion for DNA testing. The results showed that the blood on Brown's shoe could not have come from any of the victims because it was male DNA and a saliva sample taken from the victim who had allegedly bitten Brown showed no evidence of Brown's DNA. In their motion for a new trial, Brown's lawyers, including lawyers from the Mississippi Innocence Project, argued that "the two pieces of physical evidence that the state alleged at the 1995 trial, linked petitioner to the crime scene—and upon which the state relied to gain a conviction and sentence in this matter—do not in fact link the petitioner to the crime scene, and are not what the state purported them to be." In an act it described as “extraordinary and extremely rare in the context of a petition for leave to pursue post-conviction collateral relief,” the court overturned Brown's convictions without need for an evidentiary hearing on the DNA evidence and returned the case to the DeSoto County Circuit Court for a new trial. The Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed Dougherty's conviction for a second time, ruling that the trial court had improperly permitted prosecutors to use the same testimony an assistant fire marshal had presented in Dougherty's first trial in 2000, even though Dougherty's 2000 conviction and death sentence had been overturned because of his trial lawyer's failure to retain a fire science expert to explain the scientific invalidity of that testimony and the lawyer's resulting inadequate cross-examination of the fire marshal. The court ruled that Philadelphia prosecutors also improperly presented the testimony of another former Philadelphia fire marshal that relied on and prejudicially bolstered the initial questionable arson testimony. At the time of the retrial, Pennsylvania Innocence Project legal director Marissa Boyers Bluestine had said the case against Dougherty "should never have been allowed to go to trial." Boyers had criticized the testimony of the prosecution's experts as having "no scientific validity." She said "To be able to put that in front of a jury today, in 2016, was a travesty." Dougherty's jury in 2016 acquitted him of first-degree murder, determining that he had not intended to kill his children, but convicted him of arson and two counts of second-degree murder, which carries an automatic life sentence in Pennsylvania. Dougherty's current lawyer, David Fryman, expressed gratitude "that the Superior Court righted the errors committed by this trial judge.... We’re hopeful the District Attorney’s office will finally put an end to the pursuit of a case that never should have been brought in the first place," he said.

Prosecutors Seeking Death Sentences for Aging Defendants Despite Taxpayer Cost, Likelihood of Dying Before Execution

Two cases in which prosecutors have elected to pursue the death penalty against aging or infirm defendants who will almost certainly never be executed have raised questions about the costs and benefits of capital charges and the arbitrary exercise of prosecutorial discretion. Federal prosecutors in Missouri are seeking the death penalty against 61-year-old Ulysses Jones Jr., a man with terminal renal disease, for the 2006 killing of another prisoner at a federal prison hospital. At the same time, Philadelphia's judicially-appointed interim district attorney, filling the unexpired term of a district attorney convicted of public corruption charges, is pursuing the death penalty against 64-year-old Robert Lark in the retrial of a 1979 murder. Lark won a new trial in 2014, seven years after Philadelphia prosecutors appealed a lower federal court ruling that they had unconstitutionally struck African Americans from serving as jurors in Lark's case because of their race. Jones is currently facing a capital sentencing hearing in the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri after having been convicted on October 4 of murdering 38-year-old Timothy Baker with a makeshift knife in January 2006 at the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri. Jones has been receiving dialysis for the last 30 years, and the medical center, known as Fed Med, houses the nation’s largest dialysis center. Two other prisoners, Wesley Paul Coonce Jr. and Charles Michael Hall, are on federal death row for another murder at Fed Med. Jones's lawyer, Thomas Carver, argues that the capital trial is senseless, both because Jones is already serving a life sentence for two unrelated robberies and murders, and because, if he is sentenced to death, he will likely die before his appeals process is complete, and almost certainly before an execution would be scheduled. "We're talking millions of dollars here," Carver said. Carver believes Jones—whom the defense says has significant intellectual and cognitive impairments—was not indicted until 2010 "because the government was hoping he would die.” In Lark's case, Interim Philadelphia District Attorney Kelley Hodge has decided to seek the death penalty even though Lark's appeals in his case, if he were sentenced to death, would not be completed before Lark was in his late-70s or his 80s, far beyond his expected survival on death row. Marc Bookman, a longtime Philadelphia public defender who now serves as Director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, called the decision to seek death, made "by a prosecutor chosen by Philadelphia judges rather than one chosen by the community[,] ... a needless step backward" for Philadelphia. Quoting Lawrence Krasner—who overwhelmingly won the Democratic nomination for Philadelphia district attorney after campaigning on a promise not to seek the death penalty and is heavily favored in the November general election—Bookman says, “We have to stop lighting money on fire.” Krasner has said that the death penalty “has cost Pennsylvania taxpayers over $1 billion, yet no one on Pennsylvania’s death row has been put to death involuntarily since 1962,” and his Republican opponent, Beth Grossman has publicly "wonder[ed] whether [the death penalty] is at this point even economically feasible.” In February 2015, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf declared a moratorium on executions, noting that Pennsylvania’s failing death-penalty system forced “the families and loved ones of victims to relive their tragedies” with each reversed death sentence. The only certainty in the current system, he said, “is that the process will be drawn out, expensive, and painful for all involved.”

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.”

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