Our nonprofit partner American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania (ACLU-PA) recently asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to declare the death penalty statute unconstitutional.
ACLU-PA argues that the statute violates equal protection provisions, as there are “vast disparities across the commonwealth in the quality of representation for capital case defendants who are unable to pay.” Pennsylvania is the only state in the U.S. that does not provide state funding for indigent defendants, leaving counties responsible for these costs.
According to the ACLU-PA, “The burden of these disparities falls disproportionately on the state’s most vulnerable populations, particularly people of color and the poor. People of color make up more than half of the state’s death row population. Stories in the brief include those of defendants who were represented by lawyers who were drunk, extremely overburdened, or otherwise ill-equipped to defend capital cases.”
ACLU-PA reports that more than a third of death sentences in Pennsylvania have been reversed because of poor representation, a clear issue in capital cases that has yet to be addressed. In 2015, Governor Tom Wolf commissioned a panel to do a study on capital punishment in the state. The panel found that the death penalty is costly, unevenly applied, and unfairly influenced by outside factors, such as geography. Anna Arceneaux, senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, says there are “well-documented flaws with the death penalty nationwide-from racial bias to arbitrary application, and the execution of innocent people.”
Learn more about ACLU-PA’s amicus brief at Pennsylvania Capital Star.