Another flawed case: Pa’s death penalty is broken and lawmakers need to abolish it | John L. Micek

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(*Updated: The headline for this story has been updated to accurately reflect that, while Orlando Maisonet’s death sentence has been vacated, he has not yet been exonerated)

Why does Pennsylvania even bother having a death penalty anymore?

There’s another reason to ask that question this week with news that, because of prosecutorial misconduct and ineffective counsel, a Philadelphia judge has vacated the death sentence of Orlando Maisonet, who was convicted in the murder of a pizza shop owner and a reported snitch decades ago, The Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

Maisonet, who was once featured on ‘America’s Most Wanted,’ had his conviction in the death of pizza shop owner Ignacio Slafman overturned in 2005. And last week, after 28 years on death row, Common Pleas Court Judge J. Scott vacated the conviction in the death of that snitch, Jorge Figueroa. This means Maisonet will either have to be retried or released, the newspaper reported.

And in the wake of the decision, a Boston College law professor says there might have to be a review of all the cases handled by the late Roger King, who, under the tenure of former District Attorney Lynne Abraham, was famed for obtaining more capital convictions than any other prosecutor, the Inquirer also reported.

The decision in Maisonet’s case comes just about two months after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court vacated the death sentence of Terrance Williams, of Philadelphia, on the grounds that prosecutors had withheld key evidence that Williams had been sexually assaulted by his victim, a church deacon named Amos Norwood, as a youth.

Williams was re-sentenced to life without parole and continues to appeal his first-degree murder conviction, according to The York Daily Record.

And that decision came after a capital inmate from Schuylkill County named Ronald Champney was resentenced last August to 10 to 20 years in prison under the terms of plea deal where he pleaded no contest to lesser charges, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

All told, Pennsylvania’s death row population has fallen, largely because of reversals and resentencings, by 100 people by 100 people over the last 16 years, going from 247 inmates in April 2002 to 142 inmates with these most recent instances.

In all, 170 Pennsylvania death-row prisoners have overturned their convictions or death sentences in state or federal post-conviction proceedings and Pennsylvania’s state courts have reversed an additional 100 death sentences on direct appeal, according to Death Penalty Information Center data. More than 97 percent of the state’s death row inmates have been resentenced to life or less or acquitted, according to the DPIC data.

At the same time, however, prosecutors across Pennsylvania have continued to pursue the death penalty and the state Corrections Department has continued to sign execution warrants for convicted inmates, most recently for a York County man, who has a scheduled execution date of March 8, The York Dispatch reported.

Both the sentences and warrants, however, are symbolic and effectively meaningless. Pennsylvania has executed just three people in the last six decades. The last one came in 1999 with the execution of Philadelphia torture-killer Gary Heidnik at Rockview State Prison in Centre County.

In 2015, shortly after taking office, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf imposed a moratorium on executions that remains in place four years later.

Last year, a death penalty study panel, authorized under a 2011 state Senate resolution, released its long-awaited report on the state of capital punishment in Pennsylvania.

It reinforced what most already know: That the death penalty is unnecessarily expensive, unevenly applied, and unfairly influenced by such factors as geography.

The sprawling and deeply troubling 280-page document also noted, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer “the high number of people with intellectual disability and mental illness on death row — populations that are constitutionally protected from capital punishment. And it found the punishment had been unevenly applied, affected by factors like the race of the victim and the county where the crime occurred.”

The report’s authors concluded that “neither judicial economy nor fairness is served when the more than 97 percent of cases in which death sentences are converted to life sentences or less leave death row only after post-conviction review.”

So, again, why – apart from the optics of appearing tough on crime – does Pennsylvania even have a death penalty on its books?

Thirty of fifty states currently have a death penalty statute on the books. Most of Pennsylvania’s neighboring states, with the exception of Ohio, have abolished the death penalty.

In red, states with a valid death penalty statute. In blue, the states that have abolished the death penalty. Source: WikiMedia Commons

With the new “Clean Slate” law and other reforms over the last few years, Pennsylvania has emerged as a national model for criminal justice reform

That push has united both progressives, who make the traditional social justice arguments about needlessly punitive sentences, and fiscal conservatives, such as Americans for Prosperity, who have come at it from the economic side of the ledger. There is a similar push waiting to be made on capital punishment.

Yet in the face of mounting evidence that Pennsylvania’s death penalty is irretrievably broken, state lawmakers, who fix or repeal ineffective laws all the time, have remained content to let the machinery of death rumble pointlessly and ineffectively on its way.

If they’re really serious about criminal justice reform, this year should be the year that Pennsylvania lawmakers give society’s ultimate sanction the serious rethink it deserves.

Even better, they should just repeal it, and get it over with.

An award-winning political journalist with more than 25 years' experience in the news business, John L. Micek is The Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. Before joining The Capital-Star, Micek spent six years as Opinion Editor at PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., where he helped shape and lead a multiple-award-winning Opinion section for one of Pennsylvania's most-visited news websites. Prior to that, he spent 13 years covering Pennsylvania government and politics for The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa. His career has also included stints covering Congress, Chicago City Hall and more municipal meetings than he could ever count, Micek contributes regular analysis and commentary to a host of broadcast outlets, including CTV-News in Canada and talkRadio in London, U.K., as well as "Face the State" on CBS-21 in Harrisburg, Pa.; "Pennsylvania Newsmakers" on WGAL-8 in Lancaster, Pa., and the Pennsylvania Cable Network. His weekly column on American politics is syndicated nationwide to more than 800 newspapers by Cagle Syndicate.

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