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Prosecutors Driving Dip In PA Death Sentences, Not Moratorium

Ted S. Warren
In this Nov. 20, 2008, file photo, the execution chamber at the Washington State Penitentiary is shown with the witness gallery behind glass at right, in Walla Walla, Wash.

A new report from a group that tracks the death penalty in America finds that executions have reached the lowest point since 1991.

For the fourth year in a row, there have been fewer than 30 executions in the U.S., coming just as public opinion polls show that support for the death penalty is waning.

Texas put more people to death — 13 — than any other state. That was more than half of the nation’s 2018 executions.

In Pennsylvania, where Gov. Tom Wolf is blocking new executions, defendants are still being sent to death row, though the pace of those being condemned to death has slowed.

Since Wolf put a moratorium on the death penalty in 2015, six convicted killers have been sentenced to death, mostly in rural places like York and Pike counties.

Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, the group that prepared the report, said Wolf’s moratorium had less of an impact on the number of people sitting on death row than another factor: convicted killers in Philadelphia are being sentenced to death far less often than in years past.

In the 1990s, around 10 defendants a year received death warrants after murder convictions. In recent years, the number has been, on average, less than one a year.

It’s a movement not expected to change soon. Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner has vowed never to pursue the death penalty, likening the practice to “lighting money on fire.”

Dunham said the trend toward fewer capital cases in Philadelphia resulting in death sentences reflects patterns nationwide.

“I don’t think the moratorium has had a significant impact in the reduction in the number of capital prosecutions and the number of death sentences. It has had some impact,” Dunham said. “But the major driver of the decline of death sentences in Pennsylvania is Philadelphia.”

This summer, state officials in Harrisburg released a report finding capital punishment in Pennsylvania deeply flawed. It concluded that many of those sitting on death row have intellectual disabilities, even though mental illness is supposed to legally shield a defendant from the death penalty.

The last person to be executed in Pennsylvania was Gary Heidnik, in 1999. The convicted killer tortured, raped, and kidnapped women. His gruesome acts inspired the horror film the Silence of the Lambs.

Records from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections show that there are 144 convicted murderers on death row. Data from prison officials show that 73 of the death row inmates are black and 55 are white. Two people on death row are Asian and 14 are Hispanic.

In Philadelphia, among the last 46 defendants sentenced to death, 44 have been people of color, according to Dunham.

“Even as the death penalty has been imposed less and less,” he said. “It’s been imposed even more disproportionally among people of color.”


Find this report and others at the site of our partner, WHYY.