By Tony Hanson
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – Pennsylvania’s death row population is going down, dramatically, and people on both side of the debate over the death penalty say it is a symptom of a broken system.
Prosecutors are now seeking fewer death penalties — in new murder cases and after successful death penalty appeals — because, they say, the endless appeals process makes it prohibitively expensive and difficult. And, in part because of this, Pennsylvania’s death row population is shrinking.
The state Senate recently ordered a study that could recommend changes to — or the abolition of — the ultimate penalty, which was re-instated in Pennsylvania in 1978.
The Department of Corrections reports a total of nearly 400 people have been sent to death row since the penalty was re-instated. But only 204 are there now.
Just three people, including Philadelphia house of horrors murderer Gary Heidnik, have been executed — all after giving up their appeals. Twenty-three have died of natural causes.
Attorney Marc Bookman, executive director of a non-profit defense death penalty support agency, notes those three people were executed only after giving up their appeals.
“Couple that with the fact that we had over 130 reversals and all but five of those people ultimately ended up with a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, or less. So, I think if you take those two facts together you have to assume we are working with a broken death penalty system.”
Among those convicted killers now serving life, is convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu Jamal. The officer’s widow, Maureen Faulkner, agreed with the D.A.’s decision not to seek death again, rather than face more years of hell.
“Should the jury decide on the death sentence again, we would again start the whole decades-long appeal process over again.”
Increasingly, prosecutors are agreeing to life, rather than seeking death again, and beginning the process again.
“It’s not fair that the citizens of Pennsylvania are being deprived of this element of justice which they have voted for when citizens of other parts of this country are seeing their laws applied fairly,” says Philadelphia Deputy District Attorney Ronald Eisenberg. “In that sense, clearly the system is broken.”
But death penalty opponents contend exhaustive appeals are necessary, because a person’s life is at stake, and, they say, the high number of successful appeals should be troubling to the public.