WASHINGTON – Pennsylvania should order a moratorium on executions while the governor and the state Supreme Court review a study that found black defendants are more likely to be sentenced to death, an independent committee said.
Since October 1999, the Committee on Racial and Gender Bias in the Justice System, appointed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, has studied race, ethnicity and gender issues in the courts. It released a 550-page report Tuesday, calling on Gov. Ed Rendell and the court to order the moratorium.
"We acted beyond our role. We realized that the recommended changes did not lie solely within the courts," said Nicholas Cafardi, dean of Duquesne University's School of Law and the committee chairman.
The report addressed several issues, including gender bias in jury selection, a lack of diversity in jury pools and the courts' treatment of sexual assault victims. It also said many defense attorneys in death penalty cases need better pay and standardized training.
In calling for a moratorium, the report cited studies of Philadelphia's courts and statistics showing that blacks make up 62 percent of Pennsylvania's 242 death row inmates but only 10 percent of the state's general population.
Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which supports the death penalty, said those studies were written by researchers biased against capital punishment. "The system is generally fair. It's been studied, reformed and tinkered with for 30 years now," he said.
Rendell, a former Philadelphia prosecutor and mayor, supports the death penalty, but has said he would review the issue if warranted. A spokesman for Rendell did not return calls Tuesday.
Cafardi said it will be up to two new task forces established by the Supreme Court to find ways to implement the committee's recommendations, including the collection of data on capital litigation.
There have been calls for moratoriums in several states, but they have only taken effect in Illinois and Maryland. Maryland's new governor, Robert Ehrlich, lifted the moratorium when he took office in January.
Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, Pennsylvania has executed three people. The most recent was in July 1999.