Pa. capital murder study ties case trajectory to defendant income

A new report on death penalty cases in Pennsylvania shows a strong tie between how a case proceeds through the justice system and who a defendant relies on for legal counsel.

Pennsylvania lawmakers formed a task force dedicated to studying capital punishment in 2011. The report came out June 2018. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

Pennsylvania lawmakers formed a task force dedicated to studying capital punishment in 2011. The report came out June 2018. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

A new report on death penalty cases in Pennsylvania shows a strong tie between how a case proceeds through the justice system and who a defendant relies on for legal counsel.

Public defenders’ and court-appointed attorneys’ clients were more likely to get a death sentence in the hundreds of death penalty cases that comprised the study’s sample, compared to those who were able to afford their own private defense.

But the study also found that prosecutors were less likely to seek the death penalty in the first place against defendants represented by public defenders.

Lisette McCormick, executive director of the Interbranch Commission for Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness, suspects this may mean that prosecutors working against often overburdened public defenders may use the threat of the death penalty as a way of making a life sentence seem like a better deal pre-trial.

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“If they take a plea, that’s not necessarily a better outcome,” said McCormick.  The Commission partnered on the study with Pennsylvania State University’s Justice Center for Research, and the university’s department of criminology and sociology.

“Many of the public defenders, and court-appointed attorneys as well, have limited resources. So there may be an increased opportunity for the defendant to plead to something, [even if] there might not be enough evidence [for a conviction],” McCormick said.

But McCormick doesn’t know for sure because the report doesn’t detail the cases’ earlier stages.

As it was, the study took over three years to complete—requiring researchers to go beyond reported data and review case files in courthouses in 18 counties.

In Philadelphia, cases handled by public defenders — who are salaried staffers with predictable case-loads — had better outcomes, but they comprise just 20 percent of indigent defense cases in the city. Court-appointed attorneys — who work for less predictable income, acting more as freelancers — handle the other 80 percent, and those cases were more likely to conclude with a conviction.

The study also raises questions that it could not answer due to data and recordkeeping limitations, which some experts say underscores chronic problems with the state’s criminal justice system.

“Were charges dropped, or reduced in a plea bargain? There’s no one data set where you can just get all that,” said Jeffrey Ulmer, associate head of Penn State’s Department of Sociology and Criminology. “Not just for researchers like me — but for the public, knowing what the justice system is doing — it’s a problem for visibility and decision-making.”

McCormick says the commission’s forthcoming recommendations will include improving data collection.

Only the 18 counties with at least 10 capital murder convictions during 2000-2010 were included in the study: Allegheny, Berks, Bucks, Chester, Dauphin, Delaware, Fayette, Lackawanna, Lancaster, Lehigh, Luzerne, Monroe, Montgomery, Northampton, Philadelphia, Washington, Westmoreland, and York.

Each of the other 49 counties had fewer than 10 and, collectively, accounted for only 13 percent of such cases in Pennsylvania during the decade of focus.

A charade?

Criminal justice experts say the study also underscores Pennsylvania’s lack of progress on the issue of indigent defense.

Rob Dunham, who led indigent defense teams focused on capital murder cases in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, says the study echoes repeated discussions and analyses of the problem by a multitude of varied sources over the years.

“The very same problems that have been left ignored for 30 years continue to exist,” said Dunham, who also formerly headed the Defender Association of Philadelphia’s training for its capital habeas unit in the federal court division.

A 2011 study commissioned by the legislature regurgitated much of a similar report from 2003. And in 2017, nothing has changed.

Pennsylvania remains the only state where indigent defense is solely financed by counties and doesn’t get any state funding.

Dunham, now executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a D.C. think tank, found death sentences were overturned in the vast majority of more than 150 Pennsylvania murder cases he studied closely.

“People who are sentenced to death are not going to be executed, their [sentences] are going to be overturned, and we can have no confidence in capital proceedings because from the outset they’re unfair,” Durham says, referring to the state’s death penalty system as a “charade.”

Pennsylvania has the fifth-largest death row population in the country and hasn’t executed an inmate since 1999, longer ago than any of the 35 states with a death penalty but Colorado, Kansas, Wyoming and Nebraska.

The study had a few other noteworthy findings, including:

  • Black defendants were disproportionately convicted of murder, particularly of the first degree.
  • Convictions were more likely in capital murder cases involving white victims.
  • White defendants were more likely to have private attorneys; black and Latino defendants were more likely to be represented by a public defender.
  • Juries handled 70 percent of death penalty cases and were significantly more likely than a judge to impose a death sentence.

The findings will inform the Joint State Government Commission on capital punishment, which was created in 2011 to examine 17 issues related to Pennsylvania’s death penalty system. They were supposed to release findings by the end of 2013, but haven’t yet.

McCormick says the joint commission will hold a briefing on the report, but the date hasn’t been set yet.

Editors’ note: This story was updated to reflect corrected information provided by Pennsylvania State University’s criminology and sociology department. A previous version indicated that convictions in general were more likely in death penalty cases. The study’s finding specifically concerns death sentences.

A previous version also stated that the majority of the 300 convictions Dunham studied were overturned. His analysis pertained to 150 death sentences.

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