Statement of State Senator Stewart J. Greenleaf on the Joint State Government Commission’s Report on Capital Punishment in Pennsylvania

According to this report, 162 condemned prisoners in the United States have been subsequently acquitted in a retrial, had charges dropped, or had pardons granted on the grounds of innocence.  We know that DNA evidence has proved that other incarcerated people were totally innocent.  The report concludes that it cannot be assured that Pennsylvania would not execute an innocent person.

I don’t know if the votes are there in the General Assembly to abolish the death penalty, but there are certain things we can do to ensure that no innocent person is condemned to die.

  • Our Rules of Criminal Procedure should be changed to require a judge to determine at the pretrial stage whether the defendant has an intellectual disability or serious mental illness. Otherwise, we go through the expense of litigation only to find out that the constitution prohibits an execution.
  • Jury Selection: certain social and religious groups are more likely to be excluded from juries in capital cases because of their opposition to the death penalty.
  • Legislation should allow challenges to death sentences based on statistics and the makeup of the jury pool, instead of the current practice of having to show purposeful discrimination.
  • I also agree with the report that an empirical study would be helpful to determine whether jurors actually understand the standard jury instructions.
  • Clemency: Historically, the requirement that the Board of Pardons vote unanimously on a commutation or pardon for a condemned person all but assures that clemency is unavailable. The “unanimous vote” requirement for the Board of Pardons should be changed. The Governor would still have discretion to grant a pardon recommended by the Board.
  • Defense Counsel: I have pushed for Pennsylvania to provide more support for the legal defense of the indigent. It is our duty under the Sixth Amendment. I would support the establishment of a statewide Capital Defense Center to ensure that defense counsel in capital cases are competent and have access to the resources they need.

If we do these things, along with improvements to the way confessions are taken and evidence is gathered, we will improve our ability to say that no innocent person is executed in Pennsylvania.

Founding fathers John Adams and Benjamin Franklin believed it was better that 100 guilty go free than to convict one innocent person. 

Defending British soldiers charged with murder for their role in the Boston Massacre, John Adams stated:

“It is more important that innocence should be protected, than it is, that guilt be punished; for guilt and crimes are do frequent in this world, that all of them cannot be punished.  […] When innocence itself, is brought to the bar and condemned, especially to die, the subject will exclaim, ‘it is immaterial to me whether I behave well or ill, for virtue itself is no security.’  And if such a sentiment as this were to take hold in the mind of the subject that would be the end of all security whatsoever.”