Updated: 1:42 p.m.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court was asked Wednesday to outlaw the death penalty because of what critics call the cruel and arbitrary way it’s applied to poor and black defendants.
More than half of the 441 death sentences handed down since the death penalty was reinstated in the late 1970s have been deemed flawed and overturned, Assistant Federal Defender Timothy Kane told the court. Among the 155 from Philadelphia, the reversal rate is 72 percent.
“The reliability of the system as a whole is cruel . and the systemic problems affect every case,” Kane argued before an overflow crowd at Philadelphia City Hall.
Most of the time, the sentence or verdict was reversed on appeal because of the work of court-appointed lawyers working with limited public funds, he said.
In the two test cases involved in the unusual “King’s Bench” petition presented to the Supreme Court, transcripts of the defense portion of their sentencing hearings run to just 14 pages combined.
Justice Debra Todd asked why the issue was urgent, given the moratorium on executions that Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf imposed after taking office in 2015. A lawyer for Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who opposed the petition, said it was not. Shapiro’s office said that any amendments to the death penalty should be decided by the state Legislature, which issued a troubling report on the issue last year.
“The questions the report raises are important, and should be thoroughly considered and resolved, by the General Assembly,” Shapiro’s office said in its brief.
However, Kane said the Supreme Court needs to step in given the failure of lawmakers to act on the bipartisan review. He asked the court to declare the state statute unconstitutional and convert the sentences of 137 men on death row to life imprisonment. There are no women on death row in Pennsylvania.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who won election in 2015 on an anti-death penalty platform, said that 82 percent of the current death row inmates from Philadelphia are black.
Statewide, just under half of the current death row inmates in Pennsylvania are black, compared to 11% of state residents. The death penalty remains legal in 29 U.S. states, although four of those states, including Pennsylvania, have a moratorium on executions.
The average appeal in Pennsylvania takes 17 years, straining the resources of the court system, critics said.
The five Democrats and two Republicans on the state Supreme Court did not indicate when they would rule.
The test case involves two men sentenced to death row in the 1990s — Jermont Cox, of Philadelphia, and Kevin Marinelli, of Northumberland County. Relatives of Marinelli’s victim, who was killed over a stereo during a 1994 home invasion robbery, oppose the appeal.
Only three people have been executed in Pennsylvania since capital punishment was reinstated in 1978, the last of them in 1999.
The death penalty remains legal in 29 U.S. states, although at least four of those states, including Pennsylvania, have a moratorium on executions.