by Francis J. Viglietta and Rev. Sandra Strauss
It’s time to re-examine the death penalty in Pennsylvania.
Fifteen diverse, faith-based, legal, and civil rights organizations, including the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Pennsylvania Council of Churches, form the Pennsylvania Moratorium Coalition. The coalition is calling on state government for a thorough examination of Pennsylvania’s death penalty and an official two year suspension of executions.
Government routinely reviews its programs. In today’s era of accountability and transparency in Harrisburg, thoroughly reviewing the death penalty is the responsible thing to do.
Capital punishment has long been a troubling issue for society; but, in recent years, public opinion has markedly shifted away from the death penalty. This January, the Center for Survey Research of Penn State Harrisburg released a poll showing more Pennsylvanians prefer life sentences, either with or without parole, over the death penalty. This is why the new coalition is calling for the review.
The possibility of executing an innocent person is an urgent problem. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in the 1970s, six people in Pennsylvania and 123 nationwide on death row were completely exonerated. With more than 220 people on death row in the Commonwealth – the fourth largest death row population in the country – one can reasonably estimate that other innocent people could be awaiting execution in Pennsylvania today.
Poverty plays a significant role in imposing the death penalty. As people of faith we are called to reach out to the poor and those in need; but, what has become clear in 29 years with Pennsylvania’s death penalty is that death sentences are often given to those unable to afford private legal representation and not necessarily to those who commit the worse crimes.
Nine of 10 people on death row in the Commonwealth were too poor to afford an attorney; they were left with whatever representation the state chose for them. In some cases, competent but overburdened public defenders represented these defendants. In others, court appointed counsel handled the defense. Only two states do not provide state funding for public defenders’ offices. Pennsylvania is one of them.
The Christian community has long been a stalwart defender of justice for racial and ethnic minorities. Sadly, last year Pennsylvania passed a shameful milestone in its civil rights history. According to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, we now have the highest percentage of minorities on death row in the entire country – 70%.
Opposition to the death penalty should not be construed as a lack of compassion for those who have been touched by violent crime. Those who suffer unimaginable grief as a result of a senseless murder of one dear to them deserve the love and support of their families, friends and churches, as well as the compassion and care of the communities in which they live. They have a right to expect justice and that perpetrators will be punished swiftly and effectively. But justice can be served without taking the life of the offender.
The morality of capital punishment remains an important concern for society. Consequently, the need for a moratorium is clear and many questions about the death penalty in Pennsylvania must be addressed.
The Reverend Sandra Strauss is the Director of Public Advocacy for the Pennsylvania Council of Churches. Francis Viglietta is the Director of the Social Concerns Department of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference.
PCC Column May 2007