Outgoing Pennsylvania Governors calls for changes to state's death penalty

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January 15, 2011

By Eileen McGuire-Mahony

On the last working day of his governorship, Ed Rendell says Pennsylvania needs to reforms or abolish sentencing procedures for capital inmates

HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania: In one of his final acts in office, Ed Rendell, the outgoing Democratic Governor of Pennsylvania, has called for his state to reassess its policy on applying capital punishment.

On January 14, 2011, as he completed the last full week of his two terms helming the Keystone State, Rendell signed half a dozen execution warrants. Along with the mountain of such orders he has previously signed that have yet to be carried out, Pennsylvania now has 119 active warrants for a prisoner's execution.

Remarking on the situation, Governor Rendell pointed out that many inmates spend decades exhausting their appeals, adding he believes the cost and the time elapsed between crime and punishment needs to be streamlined.[1] Rendell took the opportunity to emphasize his commitment to the death penalty as a deterrent, contrasting the policy as theorized against the reality that many felons convicted of capital offenses are never actually executed, something he thinks dilutes the policy's impact.

He told reporters, "16 cases that I prosecuted as district attorney are on death row. I haven’t been district attorney for 25 years. It makes no sense. Again, it is not a deterrent to the criminals out on the street, because it is not a reality."[2]

Since 1976, when Pennsylvania reinstated capital punishment, three men have been executed, the last in 1999. All three opted to discontinue appeals. Two of the men for whom Rendell signed warrants, set to be executed February 24th and March 1st, also still have avenues left open if they so choose.

While Rendell urged a faster and simpler process, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania cited instances of men exonerated of the crimes they were incarcerated for while awaiting execution. ACLU Pennsylvania Director Andy Hoover raised doubts over whether the answer to a process he agrees is drawn out and burdensome is to remove steps that have previously led to men seeing their convictions reversed.

The issue has followed Rendell through his time in office. He began his first term in 2003, at the same time a panel appointed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a report alleging bias in death penalty sentencing procedures.[3] Rendell spent eight years as a District Attorney in Philadelphia, where he prosecuted some 40 death penalty cases. During that time, he helped convict Wesley Cook, convicted of murdering police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981. Cook now styles himself Mummia Abu-Jamal and has become not only one of Pennsylvania's longest serving deathrow inmates but a cause célèbre for activists working toward a death penalty moratorium. It was Rendell predecessor, Tom Ridge, who signed Cook's execution warrant in 1995.

Incoming Governor Tom Corbett, a Republican who takes office on Tuesday, supports the death penalty. In addition to picking up the governorship, the GOP flipped the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and held their ten seat majority in the Senate, meaning any attempts in the next General Assembly to reform or abolish capital punishment will go down along partisan lines. SB1110, introduced in September 2009, sought to create a special appellate review committee; it was referred to the Judiciary Committee, the last action taken on the bill.[4]