Harrisburg is waiting. It’s going on the fifth year of existence of a group that was supposed to review the death penalty in Pennsylvania and create a report that would inform policy decisions on the matter. But the report that was originally due in 2013 never came.
Now, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Since the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment was charged in December 2011, Pennsylvania has elected a new governor who put a statewide moratorium — albeit controversially — on the use of the death penalty, largely because this report hasn’t yet come through.
“Pennsylvania is an interesting place and things often take longer here,” said Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, one of the members of the bipartisan task force. “We’ve had some trouble gathering information, but some of that logjam has been broken.”
What’s the delay? Researchers at Penn State, which was commissioned to analyze data, are having problems obtaining records from courthouses in every county across the state.
And leaders of the effort to form the task force are now saying they just hope to get the report done this calendar year. One researcher said the report will be done mid-year “at earliest.”
Glenn Pasewicz, executive director of the Joint State Government Commission that researches and creates reports for the legislature, said the last four years have largely consisted of waiting on researchers from the Penn State Justice Research Center, the state’s partners on the project, to obtain and analyze data from every county.
He said they’ve recently wrapped up collecting data on the use of the death penalty and will forward data analysis to his office once they’re finished. Officials from the Justice Research Center declined to comment.
Once attorneys with the Joint State Government Commission have the long-awaited numbers, they’ll work to draw up a report that will be reviewed by an advisory committee made up of district attorneys, public defenders, victims of violent crime, criminal justice experts and others. Recommendations based on the data and input from the advisory committee will be made from there and forwarded to the legislature.
Pasewicz, whose office oversees a dozen other ongoing projects, said the capital punishment task force and corresponding report is the “most controversial” they’ve done. And it’s unusual, he said, because of pressure coming from the governor and the legislature to get a study done before they make a decision of this magnitude.
“We go about our business regardless of what the governor does,” he said. “So his decision has no bearing on our work here.”
The Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment was formed in 2011 under Gov. Tom Corbett through a Senate resolution. It’s made up of a group of four senators (two Democrats, two Republicans) as well as more than 20 advisory members, including Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams.
At the time, researchers in State College were already working on a study of the use of the death penalty, so those who drafted the resolution of the formation of the task force figured it’d be best to partner with Penn State rather than have two separate entities in the same state conducting parallel studies.
The scope of the project is wide. Data analysts and researchers have been asked to look at more than a dozen variables including cost, bias and unfairness, mental illness, juries, the appeals process, lethal injection, public opinion and a variety of other facets. The report — which has so far cost less than $5,000 to commission — was originally supposed to be done in 2013, but task force members asked for an extension as researchers struggled to collect data.
Leach, a progressive Democrat who’s against the death penalty, said he was relieved when Gov. Tom Wolf last year instituted a campaign promise and said he wouldn’t sign death warrants in the state until the conclusion of the task force and its report. A de facto moratorium on the death penalty has existed in Pennsylvania for decades, as no inmate has been executed against his or her will since 1962. (The last execution in Pennsylvania was in 1999, and the inmate waived his appeals.)
But the move still sparked outrage among capital punishment supporters, including district attorneys. Last February, Williams sued Wolf and said he’d take his decree to court, largely over the fact that the governor didn’t outline a timetable for how long the moratorium would last.
“The supposed end point for the Governor’s illegal moratorium is a chimera that can never exist,” Williams wrote in a filing. “Calling the instant act a reprieve, therefore, is simply a fraud.”
In December, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of Wolf, saying the governor can use executive power to delay executions. So now, it’s up to the task force to finish its work before Pennsylvania can move forward and legislators can argue over whether or not capital punishment should be used here.
“It’s long past the due date,” Pasewicz said. “And I think that’s just a function of the size and the scope and that we’re working with an outside group.”