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People of Pennsylvania Have Spoken: Put the Death Penalty on Hold
Robert Zaller, April 24, 2001 -- The American Bar Association supports a moratorium on the death penalty. Illinois has adopted a moratorium, and many other states, including Pennsylvania, are considering one. Both the Pennsylvania and Philadelphia Bar Associations have voted in favor of a moratorium. So have the city councils of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Erie and York. The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette agree. The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference of Bishops and other religious organizations want a moratorium, too.
    But what do ordinary Pennsylvanians think?
    To find out, Pennsylvania Abolitionists United Against the Death Penalty recently commissioned a survey by Madonna-Yost Opinion Research. The survey indicated that a majority of Pennsylvanians continue to support the death penalty in principle but that a clear majority are either uncertain about or troubled by the way it is applied. And more Pennsylvanians support a moratorium than support the death penalty itself.
    Respondents gave two major reasons for their lack of confidence in the current judicial process. The first was that it is unfairly applied - that is, as currently imposed it manifestly discriminates against African Americans and the poor. (Only 10 percent of those polled were African American; 84 percent were white.)
    The second reason appears in the most striking result of the survey: 89 percent of Pennsylvanians believe that innocent people are now in jail for murder, and 83 percent think that innocent people have been executed under current laws.
    What Pennsylvanians think is borne out by the facts. African Americans are four times more likely to be sentenced to death in the commonwealth than whites who commit similar crimes. Virtually everyone on Pennsylvania's death row is indigent. As for actual innocence: Gov. George Ryan suspended executions in Illinois after 12 people were put to death and 13 awaiting execution were found to be innocent. In Pennsylvania, the score under the current statute is three to two. Keith Zettlemoyer, Leon Moser and Gary Heidnik have been executed. Neil Ferber and William A. Nieves have been found not guilty, both after spending years on death row. That doesn't count the cases of Eddie Baker, who spent 26 years in prison on a murder conviction based on the testimony of a schizophrenic; or Edward Ryder, released after 20 years; or Jay Smith, or Terence McCracken Jr. In each instance, evidence was questionable - which doesn't make one feel exactly confident about capital cases.
    Most people agree that the worst event in the justice system is the execution of an innocent person. Most Pennsylvanians agree that there may well be, or come to be, more innocents on Pennsylvania's death row - and that they will get there not only because of honest mistakes but also because poor people can't get adequate representation, and because juries are more likely to condemn people of color.
    And that is why 72 percent of Pennsylvanians favor a moratorium on the death penalty now - even though nearly as many favor the death penalty in principle.
    Pennsylvanians are speaking loud and clear to their legislators: The current judicial application of the death penalty is unjust. It's unjust because it's class-biased and race-biased. It's unjust because it violates the basic norms of fairness on which justice is based.
    A moratorium will provide time and focus to remedy the worst abuses of the death penalty. It's also a chance to reflect on the implications of capital punishment for us as a civilized society. The system can, perhaps, be made fairer. But it may never be made fair enough to meet the standard we must expect of the ultimate penalty, and it can never be fully error-proof. Is it worth the moral cost?
    Robert Zaller, a professor of history at Drexel University, is a member of the steering committee of Pennsylvania Abolitionists United Against the Death Penalty. This article is posted with his permission, and was also published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on April 22, 2001