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Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner Argues Death Penalty Violates Constitution

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By Christopher Coble, Esq. on July 22, 2019

The death penalty as it’s carried out in PA is also racist. Our review found 37 of the 45 Philadelphia defendants on death row are black -- a gross overrepresentation compared with population in PA. 91% of Philly defendants on death row are members of racial minority groups.

Not exactly the words you expect to hear from a district attorney in charge of prosecuting death penalty cases. But Larry Krasner is no ordinary DA. Philadelphia's "progressive" prosecutor has made a quick name for himself: In his first week in office in 2018, Krasner fired 31 prosecutors; he announced marijuana would be decriminalized in the city a month later; he ended cash bail for misdemeanors and minor felonies; he set up a sentencing review panel and instructed prosecutors to offer shorter prison terms in plea bargaining; and he created a list of problematic Philadelphia police officers who used excessive force, racially profiled, violated civil rights, or lied while on duty.

Now, Krasner is asking the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to hold the state's death penalty scheme unconstitutional. "Where nearly three out of every four death sentences have been overturned," Krasner's office argues, "there can be no confidence that capital punishment has been carefully reserved for the most culpable defendants, as our Constitution requires."

More Exonerations Than Executions

Krasner may be the first District Attorney in history to argue against the death penalty, but the numbers cited in a brief filed with the state supreme court are shocking:

  • 72 percent of the Philadelphia death sentences (112 out of 155) were overturned at some stage of post-conviction review;
  • 66 percent of the overturned death sentences (74 out of 112) were overturned due to the ineffective assistance of trial counsel;
  • In 78 percent of the IAC cases (58 out of 74), the Philadelphia defendant was represented by court-appointed counsel -- i.e., an attorney selected by the court to represent an indigent defendant;
  • For the 112 defendants whose death sentences were overturned, the average length of time between arrest and the resolution of the capital aspect of their cases was 17 years;
  • 91 percent of the Philadelphia defendants currently on death row (41 out of 45) are members of racial minority groups; and
  • 82 percent of the Philadelphia defendants currently on death row (37 out of 45) are black, while less than 45 percent of Philadelphia's population is black.

Pennsylvania has executed just three people since it enacted its death penalty statute in 1978, and, according to a Joint State Government Commission of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, all three had psychiatric problems and had waived their appeals. That means more people have been exonerated under the state's death penalty scheme than have been executed.

More Black Than White

Even though executions are rare, and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf declared a moratorium on executions in 2015, prosecutors under previous district attorneys continued to seek the death penalty in homicide cases and judges continued to impose it. "The death penalty is used as a tool for extracting pleas," Quinn Cozzens, an attorney with the Pennsylvania-based Abolitionist Law Center told The Appeal. "They're able to hang that over the heads of defendants."

"After close examination of 155 death penalty cases, the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office found that the death penalty is more often than not applied to non-white defendants who cannot afford legal counsel," Krasner argues. "We have a system in which wealthy, white defendants can buy their way out of the system and evade consequences for years or decades, while poor black defendants sit on Pennsylvania’s death row for an average of 17 years -- on the taxpayers' dime -- before their death sentences are overturned. Anyone who claims to believe in the sanctity of life, truth, or justice cannot seriously defend the application of the death penalty in Pennsylvania."

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case in September.

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