Natural causes biggest threat on Pa. death row

July 24, 2009 11:15:11 AM PDT
Ten years ago, Gary Heidnik had two slices of cheese pizza and a couple of cups of black coffee, met with his daughter, and spent the rest of the day on his bed or pacing his cell. That night, he was given a lethal injection for imprisoning, torturing and murdering two women in the basement of his Philadelphia home. In the decade since, Pennsylvania has executed no one. Its death row is the fourth-largest in the nation, yet the 218 men and five women are far more likely to die of natural causes than injected chemicals, gas, electricity or bullets.

Since the commonwealth reinstated the death penalty in 1978, three inmates have been executed; all had dropped their appeals. At least seven times that number have passed away, most of natural causes such as cancer or heart failure, while awaiting execution, according to an informal Corrections Department tally.

To find a Pennsylvania inmate unwillingly put to death, you have to go back almost half a century to the last use of the electric chair.

"I think it is indicative of a split - people want the death penalty but don't want a lot of executions," said Richard Dieter of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center.

It wasn't always so in Pennsylvania. The commonwealth has recorded more than a thousand executions in its history, starting with public hangings in the time of the early colonists. Hundreds were put to death in the electric chair during the first half of the 20th century.

Supporters of the death penalty attribute the recent dearth to resistance in the courts, while opponents point to errors in past cases discovered during the close scrutiny of the appeals process.

Defense attorneys say there's good reason for the modern reluctance, given recent high-profile exonerations of death row inmates. Last year, Nicholas Yarris, freed from Pennsylvania's death row in 2004 after 23 years behind bars on murder and rape convictions, reached a multimillion-dollar settlement with the county in which he was prosecuted.

"When you look at some of the people who have been exonerated, it's quite a frightening thing to know that we could have been executing an innocent person," said Charles Cunningham of the Defender Association of Philadelphia. "It's bad enough to put an innocent person in jail, but to take that person's life, it's horrifying."

A 2007 American Bar Association assessment noted such cases and chided the commonwealth for not taking steps to make erroneous convictions less likely, such as ordering preservation of biological evidence and recording interrogations. A state Supreme Court committee in 2003 called for a moratorium, saying minorities make up two-thirds of the inmates on death row.

New Jersey became the first state in four decades to abolish the death penalty in 2007, and New Mexico followed suit this year. Others are considering doing the same, citing not only concerns about possible execution of the innocent or bias in application, but also concerns about the cost of the system.

"You could be maintaining them in prison for less, but that's essentially what they are - they are in prison for life through an expensive process," Dieter said.

Prosecutors, however, defend the use of capital punishment and state lawmakers have shown no inclination to end it.

"It would be ironic to repeal the death penalty, if the people believe it's an appropriate punishment in a very small number of cases, merely because opponents of the death penalty have tried to frustrate its operation," Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney Ronald Eisenberg said.

Thirty-five states allow the death penalty, but only nine or 10 in a typical year have executions; of the 37 last year, most were in the South - and most of those occurred in Texas. California has the nation's largest death row with 678 inmates but has had only 13 executions since 1978.

Dieter said he believes all elements in the justice system - prosecutors, juries, state and federal courts, governors - have to be willing to impose the ultimate penalty for it to be applied regularly. That is the case in Texas, for example, but not in other jurisdictions, where at least one element finds fault with the option or the way it is applied.

"I think there's a lot of ambivalence about the death penalty, but not enough to overturn it, not enough to completely eradicate or abolish it," he said. "That's a hard vote for a legislator or governor. So you have this stalemate."

Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz, a former secretary for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, says that while polls show that the public backs the death penalty in Pennsylvania, the support appears less strong than in other states and the issue has not been made a political priority.

"For years, I used to tell people 'Just wait, the floodgates will open and we'll have a ton of executions,"' Ledewitz said. "I no longer say that anymore, because for some reason it's not happening. ... I don't see any evidence that it will."

Since Heidnik's death, Pennsylvania has come close to executions a few times.

In 2000, Daniel Saranchak was to be executed for the 1993 shooting deaths of his grandmother and uncle, but a federal judge ordered a new trial, citing an ineffective lawyer. And George Banks was to be put to death in 2004 for the 1982 massacre of 13 people, but a state judge said he was too mentally ill.

On July 6, 10 years to the day after Heidnik's execution, Rendell signed the death warrant of an Altoona man who petitioned the governor to do so. Walter Wright III was convicted of killing the husband of a woman he had dated briefly after bursting into their home early Thanksgiving morning in 1998.

Wright, who has maintained his innocence, is scheduled for execution Sept. 3. Federal public defenders, though, immediately jumped in with a request to halt the proceedings while they map out an appeal on constitutional issues - leaving the death chamber unused into another decade.

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