Joint State Government Commission Issues Report on Death Penalty

A long-awaited report on a study of the death penalty suggests a number of changes to the way Pennsylvania handles its capital-punishment cases, including a state-funded agency to defend those charged in capital cases and a transparent and humane process for lethal injection.

The Joint State Government Commission was tasked in 2012 with studying the practice and process of capital punishment in Pennsylvania.  In 2015, Gov. Tom Wolf imposed a moratorium on the death penalty shortly after taking office, pending the release of the report and satisfactory responses to concerns it raises.

Although the report does not recommend abolishing the death penalty, it describes a system that is flawed, unjust, and expensive and proposes a list of reforms.  Read the full report.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) opposes the death penalty.

“The death penalty stands in the Lutheran tradition recognizing that God entrusts the state with the power to take human life when failure to do so constitutes a clear danger to the common good. Never-the-less, it expresses ELCA opposition to the use of the death penalty, one that grows out of ministry with and to people affected by violent crime.

The statement acknowledges the existence of different points of view within the church and society on this question and the need for continued deliberation, but it objects to the use of the death penalty because it is not used fairly and has failed to make society safer. The practice of using the death penalty in contemporary society undermines any possible alternate moral message since the primary message conveyed by an execution is one of brutality and violence.” (ELCA Social Statement on the Death Penalty, 1991) Read entire statement.

The ELCA’s stance against the death penalty is cited in the report, along with the positions of other religious bodies.

Only three people have been executed in Pennsylvania since the death penalty became an option in 1978.  All three had given up their appeals.  More than 466 death warrants have been signed since 1985, but a Penn State study cited in the report found that prosecution varies widely by county and defendants with private attorneys are less likely to be sentenced to death than those represented by public defenders.

Among the recommendations found in the report:

  • Creating a state-funded agency to better represent defendants charged with capital crimes.
  • Routinely collecting and reviewing data that could show bias, disproportionality or other discrepancies in death-penalty cases.
  • Passage of a Racial Justice Act to allow death sentences to be challenged on a statistical basis.
  • Pre-trial determination of intellectual disability to save time and money in cases where a death sentence would be prohibited.
  • Transparency in the use of lethal injection and use of a drug determined to be humane in its effects.
  • A study to learn if jurors understand and can properly apply instructions in death-penalty cases.

Read news coverage of the report and responses from advocates and policymakers.



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