Death Penalty Upheld as Constitutional in Pennsylvania

(AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato, File)


In August 2018, federal defenders filed a petition to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on behalf of Jermont Cox of Philadelphia, and Kevin Marinelli of Northumberland County. The petition sought to determine the unconstitutionality of Pennsylvania’s death penalty, and if approved, would have been a historic ruling that could have abolished the practice in the state. The implications of the appeal’s approval would not have just applied to Cox and Marinelli; it had the potential to affect over 130 other inmates currently on death row in Pennsylvania. The defenders fiercely and passionately advocated on behalf of the men, asserting that the application of the death penalty is a violation of the state constitution’s ban on cruel punishment. Yet, on September 26, 2019, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected this appeal.

Since 1985, more than 466 people have been sentenced to death in the state of Pennsylvania. A 280-page report released in June 2018 by the Joint State Government Commission noted a high number of people with intellectual disability or mental illness on death row. This is alarming, due to the fact that these populations are constitutionally protected from capital punishment. Three Pennsylvanian death row inmates have been executed since 1985. Each one showed signs of psychiatric problems. Each man waived his appeal, and each was executed. The report also found that the death penalty had been unevenly applied, and factors such as race of the victim and the county in which the crime occurred heavily influenced whether or not the death penalty was considered or not. In its current state, the death penalty is being weaponized against Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable and marginalized groups. In the case of the three men who showed signs of mental illness, the state has failed to uphold its Constitutional duty to protect them from this penalty. 

The report was developed by a group of four senators and a legal advisory committee of prosecutors, defense attorneys, and researchers. It outlined various reforms, including a regular proportionality review process, and a Racial Justice Act, which would allow people to challenge death sentences on a statistical basis rather than putting the burden on them to prove purposeful discrimination. The report also recommended:

·      automatically disqualifying a person with mental illness from receiving the death penalty

·      requiring a judge to determine before the trial if the defendant has an intellectual disability

·      creating a state-funded capital defender office to represent people charged with capital crimes at trial and on appeal.

Pennsylvania Senator Stewart Greenleaf (R) stressed the necessity of these reforms, particularly citing the fact that since 1978, six death-row inmates have been exonerated.  

The report also analyzed the extremely costly process of sentencing people to death. As of 2015, it was approximately 12 times more expensive to try a capital case in Philadelphia (almost $60,000) than a noncapital homicide case (about $5,000). It also costs about $15,000 more annually to incarcerate a single death row inmate, which the report found would add up to almost $40 million over time due to the fact that 150 people are currently on death row in the state. One cannot help but question why such an excessively costly practice can be seen as both just and constitutional, if not just overtly cruel. 

Marc Bookman, co-director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation stated that “It’s impossible to read this report and not come away thinking that a life-without-parole sentence would be fairer, quicker, and more cost-efficient than capital punishment… Many people will comclude that having a death penalty in Pennsylvania simply doesn’t make sense for moral, practical, or financial reasons.”

Responses to the report have made it clear that politics will be the determinant in whether or not one finds value in the contents of the report. Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner interpreted the report as saying swifter justice is needed, and pledged to start signing death warrants within his first 48 hours of office. In a statement made with regards to the report, Wagner said “We cannot endorse a system that prioritizes the lives of school shooters and cop killers over our children and law enforcement officers, no matter what the cost is for doing so.”

Pennsylvania’s death penalty system is broken. Advocates are working hard on both ends of the political spectrum to ameliorate it, but in its present state, it disproportionately affects black people and the mentally ill. This report was a bipartisan measure to illuminate the horrors of the current system, and while Cox and Marinelli’s petition failed, it will by no means be the end of advocates’ work to eliminate the death penalty in Pennsylvania.

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