Sister Kari Pohl offers insight into the death penalty in Pennsylvania in light of popular film “Just Mercy”
Sister Kari Pohl recently spoke about how the death penalty is practiced in the state of Pennsylvania and how to help advocate for an end to it before a screening of “Just Mercy” at The Tull Family Theater in Sewickley. We offer the full text of her talk below.
As our Coordinator of our Justice and Peace ministry, a registered nurse and a member of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, Sister Kari helps carry forward our Congregational commitment of working to abolish the death penalty.
Good evening and welcome! I was asked to talk with you a little bit about the death penalty and how it is practiced in Pennsylvania.
I actually was raised in Michigan, which was the first state to abolish the death penalty in 1847. I was vaguely aware that the death penalty was being practiced in parts of the United States and since it didn’t really affect me, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it.
My college roommate was required to read the book, “Dead Man Walking” for a class. She was so moved by it that she suggested I read it. That was the first time I had actually considered the ethics and complicity involved with state-funded murder.
Soon after graduation, I moved to the state of Missouri, which was in the midst of what could only be called a state-sponsored killing spree. Executions in the state doubled in the year that I was there and it seemed like every month, I was standing with other people of faith, family members of condemned inmates, and occasionally, even family members of the victims, holding vigil outside the State Building in St. Louis or the Potosi Correctional Center (site of death row) praying and hoping for a stay of execution.
It was somewhat of a relief when I moved to Pennsylvania, which has only had 3 executions since 1976 (all of whom had been “volunteers” with serious mental health issues who waived their rights to an appeals process). Prior to 1976 however, Pennsylvania had carried out 1,040 executions, the third highest number of any state.1
For many reasons, I was comforted when Pennsylvania began a moratorium on the death penalty. What I didn’t realize, however, was just how fragile that moratorium is. The only reason we’re not having executions in Pennsylvania right now is because Gov. Wolf won’t sign a death warrant.
Over the past four decades, 408 people have been sentenced to death in Pennsylvania—over half of them are no longer on death row, including six people who had been exonerated. Another 150 Pennsylvania death-row inmates had their convictions or sentences overturned on the basis of ineffective legal counsel2, or, as the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office called it in Jermont Cox v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, “poorly compensated, poorly supported court-appointed attorneys”.3
Pennsylvania is the only state that contributes nothing for indigent defense–all public defender services are funded locally with counties carrying the full burden of indigent defense costs.4
Additionally, Pennsylvania has the most onerous clemency prerequisites of any state, requiring the five-member Board of Pardons, which includes the Attorney General, the Lt. Governor, a corrections expert, a victim advocate, and a mental health expert, to unanimously recommend clemency before the Governor has the power to consider commutation. It not granted any death row inmate clemency since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
In 2011, the Pennsylvania Senate passed a resolution calling for a study of the death penalty in the commonwealth. The bipartisan committee that released the report represented a wide group of experts including scholars, members of the police force, social workers, public defenders and religious leaders. Among other findings, the study indicated that prosecution of death penalty cases varies widely by county. For example, as of December 31, 2018, just three counties (Philadelphia, Allegheny, and York) accounted for over half of the inmates on death row.5
The study also found biases based on race and gender. For example, as of January 2nd, 2020, despite making up less than 20% of Pennsylvania’s overall population, people of color accounted for over half of the inmates on its death row. As of that date, all of Pennsylvania’s death row inmates were men.6
In addition to biases based on race, gender, and location, the study also found that defendants represented by public defenders were more likely to get a death sentence than those with privately retained lawyers.7 Or, as Bryan Stevenson says, “we have a system of justice that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent.”8
In addition to being biased, a 2008 study by the Urban Institute found that the death penalty in Pennsylvania is extremely expensive. It’s estimated that the cost of sentencing 408 people to death was about $816 million higher than the cost of life without parole. The estimate is conservative, because it assumes only one capital trial for each defendant and it does not include the cost of cases in which the death penalty was sought but not imposed. The total cost may very well exceed $1 billion.9
Compounding this, is that despite multiple studies, there is still no evidence indicating that the death penalty deters crime.10
Ultimately, the committee studying the death penalty in Pennsylvania concluded that certain problems cannot be fixed: “There is no way to put procedural safeguards in place that will guarantee with 100% certainty that the Commonwealth will not execute an innocent person”.11
So, you might be wondering, what can you do?
- Write and meet with your state legislators. Let them know what you think about this—bring data. www.deathpenaltyinfo.org is a great source of information
- Write or talk with your local District Attorneys. These are the people who ultimately decide whether or not to pursue the death penalty in criminal cases.
- Write a Letter to the Editor of your local newspaper. Educate the public about the death penalty and the myriad of issues surrounding it.
- Talk with your friends. Many of us involved in this work only became involved because of our friends. For me, it was a college roommate who recommended that I read a book.
- Attend a Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty meeting. We meet on the first Wednesday of every month at 7 p.m. at First Unitarian Church in Pittsburgh at the corner of Ellsworth and Morewood Avenues.