Why does Pennsylvania still have the death penalty?

Filed under: Criminal Law, Death Penalty Cases Tags: by Liz @ September 4, 2010

We have litigated death penalty cases from both sides of the fence, prosecution and defense, and therefore feel uniquely qualified to tell you the obvious.  It is a tremendous waste of time.  Last week Governor Rendell signed three more execution warrants – the step to have those who have been sentenced to death actually put to death.  It sounds like a big deal, and newspapers love to write about the signing of the warrants.  The fly in the ointment, though, is of the 113 execution warrants that Rendell has signed, not a single execution has been carried out.  So is the signing of the execution warrants truly newsworthy, or is the public being duped?  Since Pennsylvania reinstated the death penalty in the 1970’s, only three executions have taken place.  While that sounds like a small number, it would be a significant fact that three lives were extinguished with approval of our state government.  We say “would be significant” because in all three of those cases the only reason that the execution was carried out was that the defendant gave up his appeals.  What this means is that Pennsylvania only executes those convicted murderers who consent to their own executions.  And we have the death penalty because it is a deterrent.  How much deterrence can it truly be if it is only utilized where the defendant consents?  At this point, for the those hardcore death penalty proponents who are still clamoring for the signing of death warrants despite all that we have already written here, please consider the costs.  When you add up the cost to the District Attorney’s Office and the cost of court-appointed counsel, the cost of a Judge, courtroom, courtstaff, and opportunity cost of 14 jurors who sit through the trial and 80 or so who sit through jury selection, the cost to police departments and the cost of decades of appeals, it can easily be argued that it costs one million dollars to obtain a single death penalty conviction.  With 220 prisoners on death row in Pennsylvania at this moment, a fair argument can be made that the citizens of Pennsylvania have paid more than $220 million without ever obtaining an execution against the will of a convicted murderer.  And that doesn’t begin to factor in the costs of the many times that number of trials where the death penalty was invoked but not obtained at trial.  Cost effective?  A rational person would have to admit that it isn’t.  Please let us know what you think.

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