Outgoing Pennsylvania Governor Urges State Legislators to Review Death Penalty

On January 14, in one of his final acts as governor, Pennsylvania Governor Edward G. Rendell wrote a letter to the state General Assembly urging legislators to consider replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole if it cannot be made more effective than it has been. Gov. Rendell wrote that the death penalty in Pennsylvania is not a reality: “As a former District Attorney and as a death penalty supporter, I believe the death penalty can be a deterrent – but only when it is carried out relatively expeditiously. However, a 15-, 20-, or 25-year lapse between imposition of a death sentence and the actual execution is no deterrent… To criminals on the street, our death penalty is simply not a reality.”  The governor said the current system was frustrating to both police and victims' families.  He said if the process could not be streamlined, while still protecting defendants' needs for a thorough appeal, it might be time to consider abolition: “If you conclude that there is no avenue to achieve this [careful streamlining], then I ask you to examine the merits of continuing to have the death penalty on the books – as opposed to the certainty of a life sentence without any chance of parole, pardon or commutation.”  Read full text of Governor's statement below.

Pennsylvania has not had an execution since 1999 and a total of three since the death penalty reinstated nationwide in 1976.  The three defendants who were executed expedited their executions by choosing to waive their remaining appeals.  Earlier the same day, Governor Rendell signed six execution warrants, bringing the total number he has signed to 119, but noting that none of the warrants had been carried out. 

Jan. 14, 2011
To Members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly:

As of this date, I have signed 119 execution warrants since taking office in January
2003, and not one execution has been carried out during the last eight years. In
fact, none are even close to having a final date set. The only executions carried out
since the death penalty was reinstated in Pennsylvania in the late 1970s were two
in 1995 and one in 1999, and those three men – Keith Zettlemoyer, Leon Moser,
and Gary Heidnik – had waived their appeals and asked that their sentence be
carried out.

There are inmates on death row today who were convicted and sentenced to death
during my tenure as District Attorney of Philadelphia County (1978-1986). As a
former District Attorney and as a death penalty supporter, I believe the death
penalty can be a deterrent – but only when it is carried out relatively expeditiously.
Of course, great care must be taken to ensure the guilt of the offender, and every
advance in science and technology should be made available to the defendant.
However, a 15-, 20-, or 25-year lapse between imposition of a death sentence and
the actual execution is no deterrent. In the public’s eye, the crime and the victim
may be long forgotten. To criminals on the street, our death penalty is simply not a
reality.

The time lapse between conviction and execution generally results from capital
defendants’ efforts to exhaust every legal challenge to their conviction and death
sentence that is available to them under state and federal law. That is the way it
should be; every meritorious issue must be raised and addressed. While Congress
and this body have enacted laws to help curtail and streamline the appellate
process in capital cases, the length of time between the imposition of the sentence
and actual execution, if it occurs at all, can be decades and is still too long.
Victims’ survivors are frustrated; the police are frustrated. The lengthy appeals
process not only costs taxpayers substantial money, but it also robs the victims’
families and friends of peace of mind, and they get no closure.
Therefore, it seems to me that the time has come to re-examine the efficacy of the
death penalty under these circumstances. I would ask you to explore whether
there can be any additional steps taken that allow for a thorough and exhaustive
review of the facts and the law in each case, but that would significantly shorten
the time between offense and carrying out the sentence. If you conclude that there
is no avenue to achieve this, then I ask you to examine the merits of continuing to
have the death penalty on the books – as opposed to the certainty of a life
sentence without any chance of parole, pardon or commutation. You should also
explore whether creating that type of life sentence would require a Constitutional
amendment.

Sincerely,
Edward G. Rendell, Governor
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 (E. Rendell, "To Members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly," Pennsylvania Office of the Governor, January 14, 2011).  See New Voices, Deterrence and Recent Legislative Activity.