A panel discussion Oct. 2 raised the question, “Should there be a moratorium on capital punishment in Pennsylvania?” This question intrigued not only the panelists, but also Temple students.
The Temple Issues Forum, in conjunction with WHYY-90.9 FM, hosted a forum dealing with the idea of imposing moratoriums on capital punishment in Pennsylvania.
The topic of moratoriums, legal authorizations to delay the performance of a legal obligation, have become high-profile recently.
The forum, aired live on WHYY’s Radio Times from Temple’s Kiva Auditorium, featured several special guests to debate the issues at hand. Along with Radio Times host Marty Moss-Cohane, the first panel included Ray Brown, host of the television program “Due Process” and Pennsylvania Attorney General Mike Fisher.
The second two panels featured Philadelphia Deputy District Attorney Ron Eisenberg, and University of Pennsylvania professor of law David Rudovsky.
The forum was held in response to Illinois’ moratorium on capital punishment following the wrongful conviction of 13 innocent people on death row.
The first panel discussion between Brown and Fisher mostly centered around the issue of racial disparity in capital punishment cases.
Brown noted that out of the 233 inmates on death row in Pennsylvania, 148 are black–nearly 62 percent.
“When blacks are the victim of a homicide, the suspect is less likely to get the death penalty,” Brown said.
Fisher responded with evidence of his own, and said, “The system looks at the crime itself, not on race, and depending on the facts of the case, the jury may impose the death penalty as the sentence.”
This exchange created sparks among the panelists and piqued the curiosity of Temple students in the audience.
“If capital punishment serves to punish heinous crimes, how does race figure in?” asked Temple honors student Jessica DiCello.
In response to the question, Brown spouted a long chain of statistics showing the racial breakdown of capital punishment cases. For example, he said 83 percent of death row inmates in Philadelphia are black.
Fisher responded by assuring the audience that “the review process in capital punishment cases is strong.”
Fisher also said that a lot of time goes into post-conviction actions, and that the system exercises all of its power to retry any cases that seem problematic.
Some students were so passionate about the topic that at times the panelists could not produce a satisfactory answer.
Wesley Iglesias, a criminal justice student, told Fisher the United States values white life more than colored life.
Fisher simply answered, “I don’t accept the hypothesis you have laid out.”
Questions flooded Brown and Fisher and produced heated debate on the subject.
Moderator Moss-Cohane interjected with her own questions and comments as the forum continued.
Moss-Cohane asked, “If we found one innocent person on death row, would that strike a moratorium?”
Fisher responded, “I can’t answer that question at this time.”
There is no current legislation in Pennsylvania focused on implementing a moratorium. There is legislation to make DNA testing a stronger aspect in court cases so that a moratorium would not be necessary. With the increased accuracy of DNA testing, much of the debate on capital punishment focuses on whether the accused has a right to get the testing.
“I felt Ray Brown had the support of the crowd and was right on in his argument. It was an overall excellent and heated debate,” said sophomore John Sheehan after the first debate.
The second panel focused more on the Philadelphia aspects of moratoriums in Pennsylvania. Panelists Eisenberg and Rudovsky were just as animated as the previous speakers.
“There are huge disparities in all aspects of law enforcement, along with racial disparities,” Rudovsky said. “It is a system that is unwilling to look beyond the jury’s decision”
Philadelphia’s court system came under attack following Rudovsky’s comment.
Rudovsky said that since 1990, 25 percent of capital punishment cases in Philadelphia have been defended by the district attorney. He said that since the district attorney only paid a small amount for representing the accused, there is a disinterest in capital punishment cases.
“Lead attorneys must have experience before they can try a capital punishment case. The DA’s are selected by a panel of defense lawyers before they can represent a defendant in such a big case,” Eisenberg said.
Eisenberg said that district attorneys must ask for the death penalty in advance even though more than half the people on death row are from Philadelphia.
“The percentage of death penalty decisions in Philadelphia are proportional to the state as a whole,” Eisenberg said.
Both men expressed their opinions in an animated fashion, which gained applause from the audience.
“Forums are an excellent opportunity for Temple University students to not only learn about prevalent issues on our campus but issues affecting the entire American society,” said junior Jacqui Mims.
Future TIF/WHYY forum topics include The Presidential Election, Collegetown Philadelphia, Phillies Stadium, Student Activism and Issues of Identity. For more information, visit www.temple.edu/tif.