March 20, 2003

Panel urges death penalty moratorium

By Betsey Piette
Philadelphia

A committee of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court released a 549-page report on March 5 calling on the governor, the legislature and the high court to impose a moratorium on executions in the state. The report from the Committee on Racial and Gender Bias found serious questions exist about the fairness and evenhandedness of the present system of capital litigation and sentencing, and called for the undertaking of a thorough and comprehensive study on the impact of race.

The study also makes numerous sweeping recommendations for death penalty reform, including hiring more courtroom interpreters for those with limited English skills. Jeff Garis, executive director of the Pennsylvania Abolitionists, hailed the report as a "shot in the arm" for the moratorium movement.

"The committee stated what we've been saying for years: Pennsylvania's death penalty system is biased, broken and needs to be halted," said Garis. "Pennsylvania's death row looks disturbingly like South Africa's under apartheid."

Racial bias in the system is obvious, according to the Pennsylvania Abolitionists. Nearly 70 percent of the 242 inmates on death row in Pennsylvania are Black, Latino or Asian, groups that combined make up less than 11 percent of the state's general population. A stunning 84 percent of those from Philadelphia who have been sentenced to death are African American.

Pennsylvania is one of 38 states with a death penalty, and one of 11 in which reports have been commissioned to study racial bias within the system. Studies conducted on a federal level mirror the same conclusion. Illinois and Maryland are the only two states that have enacted moratoriums. However, Maryland's new governor, Robert Ehrlich Jr., lifted that state's moratorium upon assuming office in January.

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a former prosecutor in Philadelphia, is opposed to halting executions. He has already signed two death warrants after little over a month in office. Rendell's wife, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Marjorie O. Rendell, is the chair of one of two task forces set up to consider the Committee on Racial and Gender Bias report.

During his gubernatorial campaign, Rendell said he would try to reinstate the death penalty for political prisoner and journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal. A federal judge overturned his death penalty sentence in December 2001, but Abu-Jamal remains on Pennsylvania's death row. He has been denied due process despite evidence of his innocence, including a taped confession by Arnold Beverly that he committed the murder for which Abu-Jamal was sentenced.

Garis urged death penalty opponents to seize the momentum and demand that officials at all levels of state government abide by the recommendations of the report. "Remind Governor Rendell of his campaign promise: He stated that while he supported the death penalty, he would support a moratorium if there was evidence to suggest that it was warranted. At the time, he said that he didn't see any evidence--well, here's the evidence

Garis also noted that a poll conducted by Madonna Yost Opinion Research in February 2001 showed that 72 percent of Pennsylvanians support a moratorium on executions in order to study issues of fairness.

The complete Racial and Gender Bias Committee report is available on the Pennsylvania Judiciary's Web site: www.courts.state.pa.us. Letters, calls and faxes supporting the death penalty moratorium can be sent to Gov. Edward Rendell, 225 Main Capitol Building, Harrisburg, PA 17120; telephone (717) 787-2500; fax (717) 772-8284.

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