Chau: Death penalty system results in rampant inefficiency

Chau argues Pennsylvania’s legal gridlock over capital punishment is a sign that the state would be better off without it.

Back in January 2011, former Gov. Ed Rendell sent a simple message when speaking to the General Assembly on the death penalty: Fix it or get rid of it.

Capital punishment turns into a de facto life sentence, Rendell said, when the “lengthy appeals process” stretches out to a “15, 20, or 25-year lapse between the imposition of the death penalty and actual execution.”

Legal experts say the costs of carrying out protracted death sentences through the legal system can be enormous. It can cost up to three times as much as imprisoning an inmate for life at high security, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Not only are the executions of those on death row repeatedly stayed, but since the death penalty was reinstated in 1974, Pennsylvania has only executed three people. As if that wasn’t enough, all three were executed only because they voluntarily gave up their appeals.

And now, with Gov. Tom Corbett’s Aug. 8 death warrant signing, Terrence Williams, a Philadelphia native, may be the fourth person put to death under the 1974 death penalty law. His execution is scheduled for Oct. 3. Will the state finally carry out a non-voluntary execution? Corbett said in a radio interview that the problem is not with the state’s system, but at the federal level.

“Once the appeal goes to the Third Circuit…then it’s out of our hands,” he said. “If you look at other circuits it goes through much more smoothly. The Fifth Circuit is…where Texas is. They have a different view on the death penalty.”

Is Texas better at executing those they put on death row? Absolutely. They execute more than a dozen people a year. Good for them. But honestly, is that something we want to aspire to here? The Fifth Circuit – comprised of Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi – is very much the South. Digging through the court rulings of the Fifth Circuit proves that rulings are very much in line with those three states’ cultural values. So why is our governor comparing our Mid-Atlantic judicial values to Southern ones?

On top of that, Williams’ case isn’t without controversy. Even though Williams has exhausted his ability to appeal his death sentence, his lawyers have filed additional petitions for his case arguing that Williams was physically and sexually abused as a child and that the two people he murdered were also his abusers.

None of that was revealed during his trial, and “several jurors now say they would have voted for life in prison without the possibility of parole instead of death if they had known,” said Williams’ attorneys in a statement.

Obviously there are parts in the system, whether at the state or federal level, that are dragging when it comes to carrying out death sentences. We definitely aren’t running our gallows as efficiently as they are down in Texas. But all this legal gridlock when it comes to capital punishment seems to be pointing at real ambivalence.

There’s an internal conflict we have in Pennsylvania about executing those sentenced to death. Maybe it’s about time we come to grips with that. We aren’t New York Liberals, but we definitely aren’t Conservative, gun-toting, Texas Rangers either. We’re Pennsylvanians.

What does that mean exactly? Your guess is as good as mine. But at least maybe, and perhaps vainly in my college-student, idealist heart, I hope we can recognize our internal differences enough to step back a little and say, “Maybe we shouldn’t waste all this money trying to execute someone in a state system that is desperately trying to tell us through gridlock that it’s just not working out.”

So, let’s stop playing around here, because this game is costing our state millions. If we’re not going to execute people, let’s not waste all that money pretending like we are.

Michael Chau can be reached

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