In a turnabout that few could have predicted, Pennsylvania appears poised to join at least a half-dozen other states where Republicans and Democrats together are pushing to repeal capital punishment.
Four Keystone State lawmakers — three Democrats and a Republican — have launched a drive seeking support to repeal the moribund death penalty in Pennsylvania, one of 29 states that allows capital punishment. The U.S. government and military also sanction death sentences.
Five of the six states that border Pennsylvania — Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and West Virginia — prohibit the death penalty.
State Rep. Frank Ryan, a second-term Republican from Lebanon County, is among a growing cadre of conservatives across the country — many affiliated with a group called Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty — looking to strike a law that once was a given for many state Republicans.
In Pennsylvania, 408 men and women have been sentenced to death since 1978, when capital punishment was reinstated here. Only three people have been executed over those 41 years.
More than half of those sentenced to death — 230 to date — have had their sentences vacated or overturned. Most were resentenced to life in prison. Six were exonerated.
Another 33 inmates died of natural causes while on death row, and three committed suicide.
The 139 inmates currently serving death sentences have a friend in Gov. Tom Wolf, who declared a moratorium on executions a month after taking office in 2015.
Ryan’s measure is sponsored along with state Rep. Chriss Rabb, D-Philadelphia, and Democrat state Sens. Sharif Street, of Philadelphia, and Katie Muth, of Montgomery County. The lawmakers said they plan to bring bills to the floor this year.
Ryan, a certified public accountant, said his firm pro-life beliefs led him to question capital punishment. The answers he found led him to conclude the death penalty is bad public policy.
“I empathize with victims. But from a public policy standpoint, it’s better to do life in prison without parole than for the state to start picking who is going to die. And from a public policy perspective, I’ve found that the justice system is not as responsive to those with less economic clout,” Ryan said.
Hanna Cox, national manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, said her group considers the death penalty an ineffective “big government” program that wastes public resources and does little to deter crime. She credits much of the growing interest in repeal efforts to revelations about the criminal justice system.
“As we continue to move forward in the age of information, a lot of people are starting to look behind the scenes in the justice system,” she said.
They are finding a lot of problems, she said.
“The overwhelming cost, disparate application of the death penalty, compounded by human error and its historically arbitrary and racist implementation in our country, make it unfit for any use in an efficient and truly just system,” said Street, a first-term Philadelphia Democrat.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 1972 abolished capital punishment before reinstating it four years later.
Since that time, there have been 1,483 executions nationwide, according to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Of those deaths, 34% were black — while African-Americans make up about 13% of the U.S. population.
Of the more than 2,700 people on death row in the United States, 41% are black, according to the LDF’s most recent “Death Row U.S.A.” report. In Pennsylvania, African-Americans make up 54% of death row inmates.
Robert Dunham monitors death penalty cases across the country. He serves as director of the Death Penalty Information Center and is a former federal defender who handled death penalty appeals in Pennsylvania. Studies show capital cases cost around $1 million more than prosecutions which seek life sentences, he said.
Death penalty cases take longer to get to trial and require more resources when they do, Dunham said. Capital cases also have a “disruptive and damaging effect” on the criminal justice system by delaying other cases from getting to court, he said.
“There are opportunity costs as well as financial costs, and then there are the emotional costs,” Dunham said. “All those things go into conservatives moving away from the death penalty.”
While more than half of defendants sentenced to death in Pennsylvania have had their sentences overturned, many have remained on death row for decades at a cost of more than $50,000 a year.
Court costs also add up as inmates press appeals through the state and federal courts.
John Lesko was sentenced to death in 1981 in Westmoreland County for the murder of Apollo police Officer Leonard Miller, one of four victims in the eight-day “Kill for Thrill” murder spree Lesko and Michael Travaglia committed between Dec. 27, 1979, and Jan. 3, 1980.
Lesko was resentenced to death after a second trial in 1995. Three years ago, he was back in Westmoreland County court for another appeal.
A 280-page report on capital punishment in Pennsylvania, issued last summer, raised questions about the implementation of the death penalty but stopped short of calling for its repeal.
Allegheny County District Attorney Steven Zappala sat on the commission that issued the report. He declined to comment on the issue.
The Pennsylvania District Attorneys’ Association, however, blasted the report, saying it was biased in favor of repeal.
Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck has overseen eight capital cases in more than three decades as a prosecutor.
“In certain cases — and it’s rare — I think the death penalty is appropriate,” Peck said. “When you see the horrific nature of certain crimes, it appears that those crimes call out for the death penalty.”
Some local lawmakers still firmly support capital punishment, including state Reps. George Dunbar, R-Penn Township, Eric Nelson, R-Hempfield, and Mike Reese, R-Mt. Pleasant.
State Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, did not respond to a request for comment.
Pat Stefano, a Republican state senator from Fayette County, is among those questioning the death penalty.
“I’d prefer that we keep it on the books so prosecutors can use it as a bargaining tool, but I am not much in favor of it because it does not deter any criminals,” said Stefano, who makes a point of determining whether spending public money has a positive effect. “We have to analyze every dollar we spend, and here we’re spending millions and millions of dollars with no effect.”
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, opposes the death penalty and also questions the cost of capital punishment.
“The death penalty is not only immoral but is not effective as a deterrent for violent crime,” Costa said. “It’s astronomically expensive in comparison to a life sentence, and it’s not equitably applied across demographic groups.”
Alexis Hoag, senior counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said such attitudes are showing up at the polls and in the courts, where fewer prosecutors are pursuing death penalties.
“We now see prosecutors running on the platform of being progressive,” Hoag said.
Case in point: Philadelphia — once the epicenter of death penalty prosecutions in Pennsylvania — elected Larry Krasner as district attorney in 2017. He ran on a pledge not to seek the death penalty.
“Across the country, fewer people are being sentenced to death and more states are stepping up to end the use of capital punishment,” Hoag said, noting 24 states and Washington, D.C., have abolished, overturned or indefinitely banned the death penalty. “The truth about capital punishment in this country is clear: It is tainted by racial bias, and it lacks the deterrent effects its proponents claim.”