PITTSBURGH – Gov. Ed Rendell and Attorney General Mike Fisher, both of whom helped create Pennsylvania's death penalty law 25 years ago, oppose a committee's proposed moratorium on executions, their spokesmen said Wednesday.
The committee, appointed by the state Supreme Court, said race appears to play a major, "if not overwhelming" role in deciding whether to impose the death penalty in many cases, and urged the state to stay all executions until it can ensure capital punishment is administered fairly.
Blacks make up 62 percent of Pennsylvania's 242 death row inmates, but only 10 percent of the state's general population, according to the report issued Tuesday by the Committee on Racial and Gender Bias in the Justice System.
Rendell on Wednesday criticized comparing the percentage of blacks on death row to those in the general population.
"You have to look at the pool of people who commit first-degree murders" and compare the percentage of blacks in that group to those on death row, said Rendell, who helped write the death-penalty law as Philadelphia's district attorney in 1978.
Pennsylvania does not have a race-by-race breakdown of convicted murderers, which is one reason the committee also called on the state to collect data on such cases.
Rendell spokesman Ken Snyder said that although the governor opposes a moratorium, he believes the system could be improved by assuring death row inmates are represented by high-quality attorneys, and assuring that inmates can have DNA tests performed.
"Nothing he has seen, aside from this, indicates that there are inherent flaws sufficient to eliminate the death penalty in Pennsylvania," Snyder said.
Fisher, who helped get the death penalty law passed as a state legislator, opposes a moratorium because capital cases already are heavily scrutinized, Fisher's spokesman Sean Connolly said Wednesday.
"The Supreme Court already has not only the power, but the duty to overturn a death sentence if it finds evidence that race played a role in the sentence. That hasn't been happening in Pennsylvania," Connolly said.
There have been calls for moratoriums in several states, but they have taken effect only 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.