Dead Law Walking?| Sister Helen Prejean sounds off on capital punishment in Pa. | Thursday Morning Coffee

July 25, 2019 7:06 am

Good Thursday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

As he pursues a bid to have Pennsylvania’s death penalty statute declared unconstitutional, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner is turning to a higher power — or at least some of Her representatives on Earth.

On Wednesday, Krasner blasted out a statement enlisting the support of spiritual leaders across a variety of faiths to have them, well, testify in the wake of a study by his office finding that Pennsylvania’s death penalty statute is unconstitutionally applied to mostly poor defendants of color.

Among them was Sister Helen Prejean, a nun in New Orleans’ Congregation of St. Joseph, who’s one of the leading advocates for abolishing the death penalty. If you know who she is, it may also be because Susan Sarandon played Prejean in the 1995 film “Dead Man Walking.” The film was based on Prejean’s 1993 book of the same name.

Sister Helen Prejean (Screen Capture)

Krasner’s “study of the death penalty as applied in Pennsylvania over nearly four decades shows that the least of us – the poorest, the most marginalized, and the most vulnerable are too often sentenced to death,” Prejean said in a statement. “District Attorney Larry Krasner is sworn to uphold the law and the rights of all people, but when the law is applied unjustly, he is called to act. I urge the state Supreme Court, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, and the General Assembly to put electioneering and politics aside and bring Pennsylvania’s death penalty to an end, once and for all.”

Gov. Tom Wolf declared a moratorium on executions in 2015 — it remains in place to this day. The state last executed someone in 1999. As part of a challenge to the death penalty’s constitutionality, Krasner said his office “conducted a study of 155 death penalty cases in Philadelphia – where the majority of capital sentences have originated over the last four decades.”

That study concluded that the “death penalty is more often than not applied to non-white defendants who cannot afford legal counsel. The quality of your defense, particularly when capital punishment is on the table, should not be determined by the amount of money in your wallet.”

(Photo via

Other faith leaders also weighed in on the fairness and morality of society’s ultimate sanction. Here is a brief sampling of what they said:

“Islam requires us to be supportive of justice, even against ourselves, whether rich or poor, family or otherwise. We are all aware that capital punishment, the most extreme application of the law, is applied with inequity,”  — Imam Kenneth Nuriddin, Resident Imam for the Philadelphia Masjid

“As a clergy person, I am opposed to taking the life of anyone, so I applaud the decision of District Attorney Lawrence Krasner. But beyond my moral opposition to the death penalty, I am also aware of the disproportionate ways in which race and class impact the outcome in convictions and sentencing. In that light, taking the life of one person who might later be found to be innocent is one too many.” — Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, pastor, Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Philadelphia.

“As people of faith and conscience, the death penalty violates our moral and spiritual responsibilities. In the Jewish tradition specifically, it undermines our belief in the ongoing capacity for repair, forgiveness, healing, transformation, and restorative justice which is built into the fabric of the universe. And it transgresses our understanding that every human being is created in the image of the Divine. All of our decisions in the court of justice must be made with these values in mind.” — Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari of Kol Tzedek Synagogue,  West Philadelphia

(Patrick Feller/Flickr)

So how broken is the death penalty? Here’s what Krasner’s office determined:

  • “72 percent of Philadelphia’s death sentences (112 out of 155) were overturned during the post-conviction review process;
  • “66 percent of the 112 overturned death sentences (74 out of 112) were overturned due to the ineffective assistance of trial counsel (IAC);
  • “In 78 percent of the 74 IAC cases (58 out of 74), the Philadelphia defendant was represented by a court-appointed counsel;
  • “In 51 percent of the 74 IAC cases (38 out of 74), the court found the court-appointed counsel was ineffective; and
  • “152 of the 155 death sentences that were imposed during a period when court-appointed counsel were paid only $1,800 to prepare for a trial where the defendant could potentially be sentenced to death.”

Those are some awful and tragic statistics. One suspects that if there is someone answering the phone on the other side, they can’t be too thrilled with that kind of track record. That gives what Prejean and other faith leaders have to say some additional weight.

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Our Stuff:
Stephen Caruso
 continues his Q&A’s with candidates for the 10th Congressional District. This morning, it’s Democratic Auditor General Eugene DePasquale’s turn in the hot seat.

Washington Bureau Chief Robin Bravender has the Pennsylvania-centric perspective on former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s appearance before two U.S. House committees on Wednesday.

On our Commentary Page, a UMass Amherst professor looks at the way that consumers are forcing corporations to change for the good. Regular opinion contributor Mark O’Keefe has a few thoughts on that tuition freeze the State System of Higher Education recently approved.

House Judiciary Committee member Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-PA) speaks during a mark-up hearing. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Robert Mueller’s appearance on Capitol Hill Wednesday was a ‘win’ for Pennsylvania’s women members of Congress, Maria Panaritis, of the Inquirer, writes.
President Donald Trump was greeted by protesters and supporters alike during a private fundraiser in Wheeling, W.Va., on Wednesday night, the Post-Gazette reports.
At a ‘critical time’, Allentown scaled back a program intended to fight gun violence, the Morning Call reports.
U.S. Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, R-14th District, called the process behind the Mueller Report ‘un-American,’ the Tribune-Review reports.

Here’s your #Philadelphia Instagram of the Day:

The DelCo DA’s office has accused a local man of faking a racist email and impersonating national reporters, WHYY-FM reports.
The PA Post looks at whether Pa. school districts could change their funding mechanisms on their own — without waiting for lawmakers.
Over the last decade, Philadelphia wrote $100m in tickets. Half of them were unpaidBillyPenn reports.
PoliticsPA looks at Pa. lawmakers’ performance during the Mueller hearings.
Politico explains how the White House ‘shut down’ deficit hawks on Capitol Hill.
Stateline. org looks at the vexing question of how states are going to pay for long-term care as America’s population grows older. 

What Goes On.
The House Democratic Policy Committee’s road show rolls into West Goshen, Chester County, where lawmakers will hold a 10 a.m. public hearing on how the state can “[work] toward a sustainable future.” Per diems, man. A total source of renewable energy. They’re bottomless.

Gov. Tom Wolf
 has no public schedule today.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out this morning to Taylour Trostle at the Harrisburg Regional Chamber/CREDC, who celebrates today. Congratulations, and enjoy the day.

Heavy Rotation.
Here’s an old favorite from Elbow that absolutely speaks to our soul. It’s ‘Weather to Fly.’

Thursday’s Gratuitous Soccer Link.
As our club, Aston Villa, gets ready for a return to the top-flight this season,the Villans pipped Walsall 5-1 in a friendly on Wednesday.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.