death penalty

Death Penalty 101: Why it’s (almost) impossible to execute someone in Pennsylvania, and what’s next

Just a week before he leaves office, Gov. Tom Corbett gave a parting gift Tuesday: He signed five execution warrants and scheduled March lethal injection dates for five Pennsylvania inmates sitting on death row.

The outgoing Republican has signed a total of 48 execution warrants during his four years in office, but not one of those inmates has been executed. And those inmates who got March dates won’t be executed then — or, if history is any guide, ever. Next week, Democrat Tom Wolf will take office as Pennsylvania’s next governor — he promises a moratorium on executions until a report on the pros and cons of the death penalty is issued later this year.

Because while Wolf’s halting of executions in the state is probably welcome news for Pennsylvania’s 186 death row inmates, the state kind of has a death row in name only. Since the death penalty was reinstated in America in 1976, Pennsylvania has executed just three inmates — all of whom gave up their right to continue appealing, and went to their death willingly.

Wait, what? Where’s PA stand on the death penalty?

Pennsylvania uses lethal injection when it executes prisoners who have received the death penalty. A person convicted of first-degree murder that meets at least one of a list of 18 aggravating factors may be sentenced to death, should a prosecutor ask that of the jury that convicted them. The aggravating factors range from committing more than one murder at the same time to killing a public official.

The U.S. Supreme Court approved lethal injection as a way to execute inmates that (usually) doesn’t violate their eighth amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment. But here’s the thing: There’s a long, complicated appeals process in Pennsylvania that inmates can (and do!) use to avoid getting that needle.

Huh — how many people are on death row?

As of Jan. 2, 186 inmates in Pennsylvania were sitting on death row, some of whom were sentenced to death more than 30 years ago, and three of whom were sentenced to death just last year. Of those inmates on death row, 30 have two death sentences; one special Luzerne County man named George E. Banks actually has *12*. He was convicted in 1982 of killing 13 people, including five of his children.

Here’s a breakdown of the state’s death row inmates: 

      • Male: 183
      • Female: 3

        • Black: 98
        • White: 68
        • Hispanic: 18
        • Asian: 2

Of the death row inmates, 150 are housed at SCI Greene in western Pa., 33 are housed at SCI Camp Hill and the three women on death row reside in the women’s correctional facility in Muncy.

So Corbett is cool with the death penalty. But you say Wolf isn’t?

Wolf has said he’ll institute a moratorium on signing death warrants once he enters office until more studying of the costs and effects of the death penalty takes place. But he’s stopped short of saying he’d repeal the death penalty in Pennsylvania — though opponents say he should.

Why?

Opponents of the death penalty say Wolf should move to repeal the practice entirely — but that’ll be hard for the Democratic guv, what with that Republican-controlled state legislature.

But here’s a figure to get a GOP-er’s attention: Death Row is freaking EXPENSIVE. Oh yeah and Pennsylvania is broke. One estimate shows the state spends about $46 million annually on the death penalty, even when it doesn’t execute anyone. It costs about $42,000 to house and care for a death row inmate every year, which is about $7,000 more than other inmates.

On top of that, paying for lawyers and transportation throughout the lengthy appellate appeals process can cost upwards of $3 million for every inmate sentenced to death. There’s no time limit on a death penalty appeals process; nationally it takes, on average, about 16 years from sentencing to execution.

Oh and the convicted prisoner, in some cases, could ultimately be innocent.

WAIT, that happens?

Since 1978, 250 death sentences have been reversed in Pennsylvania; in six of those cases, evidence showed the person was innocent, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Nationally, 150 people were innocently freed from death row in the same time period.

So what’s the deal with the death penalty in Philly?

A lot of that depends on who’s running the DA’s office. Seth Williams has signed off on pursuing a handful of death penalty cases, but nothing compared to his predecessor Lynne Abraham. Dubbed the “death penalty DA,” Abraham — who is now running for mayor — sought the death penalty more than almost any other prosecutor in America.

During her 19 years as district attorney in Philly, Abraham signed of on hundreds of death penalty cases. Forty-five people on our state’s Death Row are there because of Abraham; Not one has actually been executed. Using the $42,000 a year estimation, this means taxpayers spent about $1.9 million last year alone to house and care for the Death Row inmates there because of Abraham.

When asked about her stance on the death penalty in a recent Q&A with Philly Mag, Abraham said she’s confused as to why people get all “bent out of shape” about it in Pennsylvania since an execution hasn’t taken place in 15 years. “What I did as a district attorney is past history,” she said.

When’s the last time Pennsylvania executed someone?

1999. Gary Heidnik, a 55-year-old from Philadelphia, died by lethal injection after he was convicted of kidnapping, raping and torturing six women in his basement, and of murdering two of the women. His “House of Horrors” was later adopted for the other guy (not Anthony Hopkins!) in The Silence of the Lambs movie.

Heidnik died via lethal injection at SCI Rockview near State College after he waived his right to further appeals and asked to executed. Prior to Heidnik, Pennsylvania executed two death row inmates in 1995: Leon Moser from MontCo and Keith Zettlemoyer from Dauphin, both of whom waived their appeals. The last time a person was executed in Pennsylvania against their will was 1962.

What about other states?

A total of 32 states nationwide allow the death penalty, but unsuccessful efforts to repeal the death penalty were made in at least 10 of those states. Regional neighbors New Jersey, Maryland and New York don’t allow the death penalty, while Delaware does and executed an inmate as recently as 2012. Maryland repealed the death penalty in 2005, Jersey repealed it in 2007 and New York did in 2008.

Our neighbor Delaware is actually one of three states that still allows inmates to be executed via hanging, and eight states still have laws on the books that allow death by electrocution.

Can’t they screw up these executions, though?

Differing cocktails of drugs used to execute inmates have caused botched executions on a number of occasions within the last several years. The execution of Oklahoma death row inmate Clayton Lockett made waves last May after the process had to be halted midway because there weren’t enough drugs to finish the execution. A collapsed vein left Lockett writhing in pain, and he died 43 minutes after the beginning of the procedure from a heart attack.

The botched execution resulted in calls for the end of the death penalty, as anti-capital punishment advocates said the pain incurred violates inmates’ rights against cruel and unusual punishment.

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