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Five Things to Know about the Death Penalty in Pa. | Friday Morning Coffee

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by John L. Micek, Pennsylvania Capital-Star

Earlier this week, Democratic lawmakers in the state House and Senate again proposed abolishing the death penalty in Pennsylvania.

“One innocent life taken at the hands of the state is one too many,” state Sens. Katie Muth, D-Montgomery, and Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, wrote in a memo seeking legislative support for their proposal. A companion bill, sponsored by Rep. Chris Rabb, D-Philadelphia, is being introduced in the House.

The lawmakers’ announcement came just days after Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro said he was continuing the moratorium on executions begun under his predecessor.

Shapiro, the former two-term attorney general, and onetime death penalty supporter, also called on the General Assembly to end capital punishment in the commonwealth.

“The commonwealth should not be in the business of putting people to death,” Shapiro said during a press conference at Mosaic Community Church in Philadelphia earlier this month.

With that context, here are five things to know about the death penalty in Pennsylvania. The gurney in the execution chamber at Rockview State Prison in Centre County, (Pa. Dept. of Corrections photo)

1. Pennsylvania has not executed anyone since 1999.

Philadelphia torture-killer Gary Heidnik was executed by lethal injection at Rockview State Prison in Centre County in July 1999. His remains were cremated by the state.

Writing for the website Broad & Liberty in 2021, Philadelphia journalist Thom Nichols reported that Heidnik had a final meal of black coffee and two slices of cheese pizza. He had no final words.

Heidnik was just the third person to be executed since the resumption of the death penalty. The other two were Keith Zettlemoyer and Leon Moser in May and August 1995, respectively.

All three men were “volunteers” who waived their appeals, allowing their sentences to be carried out, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

2. Who is on death row in Pennsylvania?

Of the 101 people now awaiting execution in Pennsylvania, 46 are Black, 44 are white, 10 are Hispanic, and one is of Asian descent. All are men, according to state Department of Corrections data. (Canva image/The Alaska Beacon)

3. Does Pennsylvania provide money for capital defense for people who cannot afford it?

In 2019, for the first time ever, Pennsylvania set aside public funds for poor defendants facing the death penalty. The $500,000 appropriation to reimburse counties for the costs of indigent defense in capital cases, was tucked into a piece of budget legislation known as the fiscal code.

At the time, Republicans who controlled the state Senate said the grant program, overseen by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, left the door open to funding the program in the future.

That has since proven not to be the case.

In an email to the Capital-Star, a spokesperson for the commission said the $500,000 appropriation was a “one-time” infusion of money, and was not included in subsequent budgets.

Under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, anyone charged with a crime is entitled to a lawyer. If a defendant is too poor to hire one, a court will assign a public defender to their case.

Pennsylvania is “consistently ranked at the bottom for indigent defense, and it is the only state in the nation that provides no state funding to public defenders’ offices,” according to the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.

4. How many people have been exonerated from death row in Pennsylvania?

Since 1973, there have been 11 exonerations from Pennsylvania’s death row — five of them since 2019, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

One of those former capital inmates, Nicholas Yarris, served 21 years on death row for his 1982 conviction on rape and murder charges, according to the Innocence Project.

Yarris, who long maintained his innocence, was released from prison in 2003 after DNA evidence cleared him, according to the Innocence Project.

5. What about the neighbors?

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the death penalty is allowed in 27 states, the Capital-Star’s Marley Parish reported this week. Some states — including New JerseyMaryland, and West Virginia — abolished capital punishment, replacing it with a life sentence without parole.

This story was written by John L. Micek, Editor-in-Chief at the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story first appeared.

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John Micek for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.