Gov. Rendell: More executions or none at all

January 14, 2011 12:58:22 PM PST
Pennsylvania's death penalty should either be revamped so that more murderers are executed or replaced with a life sentence without the possibility of pardon, Gov. Ed Rendell said Friday.

Four days before his eight-year tenure ends, Rendell signed six more death warrants, bringing his total to 119. None of those convicted murderers are close to potential execution, which the Democratic governor attributed to "a system of endless appeals."

Pennsylvania has put to death three people since its last contested execution in 1962, and all three had willingly given up on the appeals process.

There are currently 213 men and four women on the state's death row, housed at the Graterford, Greene and Muncy state prisons. Sixteen of them were prosecuted in Philadelphia while Rendell was district attorney from 1978 to 1986.

The past six governors, including Rendell, have signed 386 death warrants.

Rendell said he remains a supporter of capital punishment as a deterrent, but has concluded the existing system frustrates police, costs taxpayers and robs the victims' families and friends of peace of mind.

"A 15-, 20- or 25-year lapse between imposition of a death sentence and the actual execution is no deterrent," Rendell wrote in a letter to members of the General Assembly on Friday. "In the public's eye, the crime and the victim may be long forgotten."

He said lawmakers should look for ways to significantly shorten the amount of time for appeals while ensuring the facts and the law are thoroughly reviewed. If that proves impossible, he said, the Legislature should consider instituting a new form of punishment: life without any chance of parole, pardon or commutation, a change that may require amending Pennsylvania's constitution.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said in response that a legislative review of the death penalty is warranted, but he does not support a moratorium.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, called Rendell's suggestion an issue worth considering, along with other criminal justice issues. House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, said Rendell's letter would be forwarded to the House Judiciary Committee for its consideration.

The man who will succeed Rendell in office on Tuesday, Republican Attorney General Tom Corbett, campaigned as a supporter of the death penalty, and as a county assistant district attorney once prosecuted a death penalty case.

His spokesman said Friday that Corbett attributes the lack of executions to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and that he does not favor making changes to the existing system.

"There's nothing you can do about it," said Corbett transition-team spokesman Kevin Harley. "There's nothing the governor can do about it, there's nothing the Legislature can do about it. The president nominates, and it's the U.S. Senate that confirms."

Defense lawyers who handle capital cases have said underfunding of criminal defense on the state level results in flawed convictions that can't be ignored by higher courts, and that speeding appeals would only exacerbate the problem. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has overturned considerably more of the state's death sentences than federal courts, they say.

Andy Hoover with the Pennsylvania ACLU, who attended Rendell's death penalty news conference, called the current system "torturous and long" but said the governor's proposals would not be an improvement.

"If we streamline the process, we increase the risk of innocent people being executed, and the governor didn't address that at all," Hoover said.

A spokesman for the state district attorneys' association said the group did not support doing away with the death penalty and was developing proposals to cut the length of appeals, but declined to provide specifics.