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America Is Stuck With the Death Penalty for (At Least) a Generation

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With Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement, the national fight to abolish capital punishment will have to go local.
When the Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976, just four years after de facto abolishing it, the justices effectively took ownership of the American death penalty and all its outcomes. They have spent the decades since then setting its legal and constitutional parameters, supervising its general implementation, sanctioning its use in specific cases, and brushing aside concerns about its many flaws.
That unusual role in the American legal system is about to change. With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the court this summer, the Supreme Court will lose a heterodox jurist whose willingness to cross ideological divides made him the deciding factor in many legal battles. In cases involving the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, his judgment often meant the difference between life and death for hundreds of death-row pr…

American Bar Association endorses Pennsylvania death penalty report

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The association's president said the report builds upon the work of prior studies.

The American Bar Association on Tuesday put the full weight and prestige of the organization, as the national voice of the legal profession, behind a recently published report on Pennsylvania’s death penalty.

In a two-page letter to four senators on the panel, association President Hilarie Bass said the ABA “applauds the recent report of the Task Force and Advisory Committee of the Joint State Government Commission on Capital Punishment in Pennsylvania.”

Further, the letter said: “While the ABA takes no position for or against the death penalty per se, it has recommended a moratorium on executions in states that fail to safeguard due process in capital cases until such protections can be implemented,” Bass said in her letter.

“The ABA’s 2007 assessment found systemic deficiencies in a number of critical areas and concluded that ‘Pennsylvania cannot ensure that fairness and accuracy are the hallmark of every case in which the death penalty is sought or imposed.’ ”

The association’s 2007 assessment found deficiencies in the county indigent defense system in Pennsylvania and concluded the lack of statewide oversight contributes, at least in part, to counsel appointments that fail to meet professional standards. More than 100 death sentences in Pennsylvania have been overturned for ineffective counsel.

The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association this week blasted the state report — approved in 2011 and released June 25 — as a long advocacy piece in a 29-page rebuttal. Richard Long, executive director of the state’s district attorneys association, also said the bipartisan task force was largely composed of death-penalty abolitionists.

While short on new research, the long-awaited report did make several bold recommendations that included reducing the number of aggravating circumstances that qualify a murder case for capital sentence and the creation of a statewide public defender’s office.

The quality of capital counsel has long been a concern in Pennsylvania, leading in 2004 to the creation of minimum standards. A Reading Eagle examination two years ago, however, found nearly one in five Pennsylvania inmates sentenced to death since implementing the new rules were represented by attorneys disciplined for professional misconduct at some point in their career.

Pennsylvania does not contribute funding for capital cases. Those costs are borne by the prosecuting county. A statewide capital defender office, which Long and the district attorneys association said is unnecessary, would provide state dollars for capital representation at trial.

Despite sentencing hundreds to death in the modern era, Pennsylvania has executed only three, all of whom gave up their appeals. The state’s last execution was in 1999.

Dana Cook, a task force committee member and co-director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, a nonprofit group that provides resources and training for defense practitioners, called the bar association’s letter a critical endorsement. And she said the criticism from the district attorneys association was disheartening.

“It’s disappointing to me that they seem to be completely unwilling to acknowledge the problems that exist,” Cook said. “Their refusal to look at the problems critically and at least be open to the possibility that there are reforms seems unreasonable to me.” 


Source: Reading Eagle, Nicole C. Brambila, July 4, 2018


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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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