Study on Pa. death penalty three years overdue

    Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

    Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

    A long-anticipated bipartisan commission report examining use of the death penalty in Pennsylvania — as well as viable alternatives and potential systemic bias of capital punishment in the state — has once again missed a deadline.

    Officials from the Joint State Government Commission were hoping to wrap up the study by year’s end, but with that goal fast approaching, it appears the report will be more than three years overdue. 

    “It’s bordering on absurd at this point that the report hasn’t been finalized and released,” said Rich Long, who leads the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.

    Jeff Ulmer, who leads Penn State’s Department of Sociology and Criminology, said the study he is working on will be used in the report, but that it started before the task force was formed and never planned to finish within the deadline set my lawmakers. 

    “The type of research we are doing is very painstaking, complex, and time consuming,” Ulmer said.

    He said it has involved identifying all first-degree murder convictions statewide over a decade and traveling to 18 counties.

    “Going through and coding this information often entailed going through many file folders and even boxes of file folders per case,” he said.

    He said they are now completing and about to send it out for peer reviews.

    “I have not been involved in a research project with higher stakes than this in my 25 year career as a social scientist,” Ulmer said. “This kind of rigor unfortunately is time consuming, but I believe we will be able to give the Commonwealth and its citizens much better answers because of it.”

    Critics of the death penalty were not overly worried about the delays. 

    “If the DAs are in a hurry to get the report completed, maybe they can talk to their representatives that are on it? Seth Williams, for instance,” said Kathleen Lucas with Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty

    A spokesman for District Attorney Seth Williams’ Office declined to comment. Williams is among the advisory members on the task force. 

    Gov. Tom Wolf last year suspended executions pending the completion of the commission’s study. That’s left critics and backers of the practice eagerly awaiting the study’s conclusions, as it is expected to help shape the future of the death penalty in Pennsylvania.

    “This decision is based on a flawed system that has been proven to be an endless cycle of court proceedings as well as ineffective, unjust, and expensive,” Wolf said in a statement about the moratorium. 

    To the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, Wolf’s moratorium is just a ploy. The group, which supporters limited use of capital punishment, maintains that the governor is citing the slow-going study as a way to ignore state law.

    “If it’s determined by Pennsylvanians that they no longer think the death penalty is an appropriate punishment, that’s to be worked through the legislature to change the law,” said Long, who leads the association. “The governor’s unilateral action has usurped the power of the people on this issue.”

    Even before Wolf’s action, executions occurred just three times since 1976, when the death penalty was reinstated in the U.S. Yet 175 inmates are sitting on Pennsylvania’s death row.

    The committee studying capital punishment was established by former Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration in 2011 with the stated goal of delivering the Pennsylvania Senate a report no more than two years later. But heading into 2017, that day has yet to arrive. 

    According to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, since the death penalty was reinstated, 156 people nationwide have been exonerated from death row on appeal, including six men in Pennsylvania.

    A new national report shows that executions and new death sentences have fallen dramatically; that’s dovetailed with waning public support for the death penalty.

    At the same time, voters in some states — California, Nebraska and Oklahoma — recently voted overwhelmingly to keep the death penalty as an option.

    “It’s a broken machine that can’t be repaired. It never did what it was supposed to do, and it never will. It’s a waste of effort and money and it tears families apart,” said Lucas of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

    “It doesn’t deter violent crime, so you can’t claim it’s a crime-fighting tool. It may be a good tool to use to get re-elected as a district attorney, so maybe that’s where playing politics may enter into the equation,” she said.

    Long with the group of prosecutors, meanwhile, said by waiting for the study to materialize, state officials are punting on even having a conversation about the practice.

    “While we’re waiting for this report, there’s no momentum to even take a look at the issue from either standpoint,” Long said.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal