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.

(Riley Yates, Death penalty has fallen out of favor with Pennsylvania prosecutors, Allentown Morning Call, March 3, 2019.) See Studies.