Penn State researchers studying whether racial bias affects the imposition of the death penalty have begun crunching the data, a move signaling the end of a 4-year saga of waiting on a state report that has officially halted executions in the state.
The Penn State findings might be made public before year's end.
While the analysis is in the early stages, the professor leading the research said he expects similar findings to what the Reading Eagle reported last week on the distribution of death sentences in Pennsylvania.
"I think it'll be a good complement to what you've done, with some details that will flesh out the issues that you've raised," said John Kramer, a retired Penn State criminology professor. "I don't suspect that it will erase the (Eagle's) findings."
In an investigation spanning 5 months, the Eagle found Pennsylvania has sentenced 408 defendants to death since 1978, at a rate of 1.6 death sentences for every 100 homicides. The rate for counties varied from zero to more than 7, indicating wide prosecutorial discretion.
Following the U.S. Supreme Court's 1972 decision in Furman v. Georgia that found capital punishment unconstitutional, states created statutes that were intended to make its application less arbitrary, particularly for black defendants.
"Going back to the Furman decision, the question is: Have we controlled that kind of discretion adequately?" Kramer said. "I'm sure we will cite your article when we're reviewing our data."
The meticulous gathering of data on more than 900 first-degree murder cases from 2000 to 2010 in 18 counties has been tedious and painstakingly slow, pushing a state report that was expected 3 years ago back several times.
Kramer's team has been out in the field since 2012 poring over court files in counties stretching from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh to identify charging and sentencing patterns in 1st-degree murder cases. The death penalty is reserved almost exclusively for the crime of murder.
Researchers hope to learn whether race is a factor in who is charged capitally and ultimately sentenced to death in Pennsylvania.
This investigation will be folded into the study state lawmakers called for in 2011. That report, by the Joint State Government Commission, isn't expected until six months after Penn State concludes its study for the Interbranch Commission for Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness.
As directed by lawmakers, the state report will examine 17 issues around the death penalty, including its cost, deterrence and quality of counsel.
The commission's reports often are completed within a year and include recommendations.
Recommendations in the long awaited report, however, will likely relate to data collection, which is sorely lacking. The Joint State Government Commission will not be recommending whether to continue to support or abolish the death penalty, said Glenn Pasewicz, executive director of the Joint State Government Commission.
"From the beginning, it was not the intent that the report would come up with some firm recommendations about what capital punishment should be in Pennsylvania," Pasewicz said. "We're going to leave the big questions to the Legislature itself. We'll provide them with as much information as we can, and they can sort it all out."
For years, Pennsylvania's death penalty system has been a source of consternation among those on both sides of the issue. Having sentenced hundreds in the modern era and executed only 3, it is widely perceived as dysfunctional.
It has been studied before.
In 1999, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court directed a study on whether racial or gender bias influences the judicial system, including the death penalty. In the committee's 550-page report in 2003, it made more than 170 recommendations, including issuing a moratorium on executions. Gov. Tom Wolf issued one last year, saying executions would not resume until the state report is completed.
"Based on existing data and studies, the committee concluded that there are strong indications that Pennsylvania's capital justice system does not operate in an evenhanded manner," the group's report said, noting the responsibility of ensuring equal justice under the law cannot fall to a single branch of government.
The committee also took aim at the quality of capital representation, which the Eagle explored last fall, finding nearly 1 in5 inmates sentenced to death in Pennsylvania the past decade were represented by attorneys disciplined for professional misconduct at some point in their careers.
The committee's report said of capital representation, "Unless the poor, among whom minority communities are overrepresented, are provided adequate legal representation, including ample funds for experts and investigators, there cannot be a lasting solution to the issue of racial and ethnic bias in the capital system."
The group also recommended original research to study the issue further.
"It's critical that we do our own studies," said Lisette McCormick, executive director of the Pittsburgh-based Interbranch Commission for Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness, which conducted the review at the Supreme Court's direction.
'There are gaps'
Established in 2005 by Pennsylvania's three branches of government, the Interbranch Commission for Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness is tasked with addressing inequities in the court system.
McCormick added, noting there is no systematic data collection on Pennsylvania's death penalty: "There are gaps. You cannot conduct a valid study with gaps."
The Penn State report - Kramer said an internal draft would be completed next month - was commissioned in part to address this gap. McCormick's group is funding the report at a cost of about $325,000.
The Eagle's cost and sentence-distribution findings, McCormick said, were consistent with other studies she's reviewed for the current state study.
The shortage of original research on Pennsylvania's death penalty system, Kramer and McCormick said, is directly related to the difficulty of winnowing out information buried, oftentimes in storage, in hundreds of case boxes across the commonwealth.
Kramer's data collectors could examine, at their quickest pace, a maximum of 5 cases a day and averaged only 3 or 4. And some days, they would sift through case boxes and collect no pertinent data.
"There's just not any data that you can put together to do this study without investing a tremendous amount of time," Kramer said.
Source: Reading Eagle, June 16, 2016