Pennsylvania Jurors Opting for Life Sentences

Lawyers and prosecutors in Allegheny County (Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania say that concerns about innocence and shifting public attitudes on the death penalty have caused jurors in the county to "lose their taste" for capital punishment. In each of the past 8 capital cases tried, jurors spared the life of the defendant.

"My personal belief is that the heydey of the death penalty is over," said Allegheny County attorney Caroline Roberto, former president of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The trend away from sentencing defendants to death is also evident in other Pennsylvania counties and in jurisdictions around the nation. Nationally, the number of annual death sentences handed down in the U.S. has plunged to its lowest level since the death penalty was reinstated. "We're seeing doubt from the guilt phase of the trial trickle over to the penalty phase. Jurors are realizing the death penalty doesn't accomplish anything because the public is protected by a life sentence," observed Butler County, Pennsylvania attorney David DeFazio. Experts have also cited concern about wrongful convictions as another reason for the sharp decline in death sentences. Art Patterson, a jury consultant for more than 20 years and vice president of the Pennsylvania-based legal consulting firm DecisionQuest, added, "Every day (jurors) hear news of the irrefutable evidence of people on death row or in prison somewhere being freed because they didn't belong there."

An article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review recorded the jury decisions in recent cases:

Jan. 21, 2006: A jury deadlocks on the death penalty for Alvin Starks, 32, of Sheraden, resulting in a life sentence for the fatal shooting of his ex-girlfriend, Andrea Umphrey.

Oct. 3, 2005: Michael Michalski, 23, of Shaler, pleads guilty to three counts of 1st-degree murder in exchange for a life sentence. He killed his ex-girlfriend, her sister and another man.

May 13, 2005: A jury deadlocks on the death penalty for Dion Horton, 27, of West Mifflin, after convicting him of killing his friend, Kenneth Sharp. He gets life in prison.

Feb. 18, 2005: A jury sentences Rodney Burton, 23, of North Braddock, to life in prison for the torture and killing of Dana Pliakas.

Jan. 24, 2005: Prosecutors decide not to seek the death penalty during a 2nd trial for Andre Crisswell, 31, of Lincoln-Lemington, and William George Thompson, 35, of Homewood. A jury had deadlocked on the pair's guilt in the fatal shootings of an 8-year-old girl, her father and a family friend.

April 26, 2004: Christopher Scott, 25, of Penn Hills, pleads guilty to killing 4 men in exchange for a life sentence.

March 4, 2004: A jury deadlocks on the death penalty for Carl Scott, 22, of Duquesne, resulting in a life sentence for the slayings of his mother and 2 men.

Dec. 5, 2003: A jury deadlocks on the death penalty for Charles Sadler, 30, of Turtle Creek, who killed his elderly neighbor and her caretaker.

(Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, February 27, 2006). See Sentencing, Life Without Parole, and Innocence.