Although a jury sentenced him to death by lethal injection in May, no death row inmate who has appealed their case has been put to death in decades in Pennsylvania.
Since the state reinstated the death penalty in 1978, only three people have been executed, and all of them waived their rights to appeal their sentences.
The last death row inmate executed was Gary Heidnick, who died by lethal injection in 1999 for kidnapping, raping and murdering two women. As of Dec. 1, Ballard and 207 other inmates wait on death row, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections website.
That backlog of prisoners is part of the reason why the Pennsylvania State Senate passed a resolution calling for a review of the fairness, equality and expenses of having a death penalty that is rarely used.
Previous studies have found that racial, ethnic and gender biases exist within the judicial system, and later DNA evidence has exonerated some convicts of their supposed crimes.
“Questions are frequently raised regarding the costs, deterrent effect and appropriateness of capital punishment,”said the resolution’s sponsor, Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery County, in a news release. “I believe that we need to answer these questions.”
David Rose, an Easton man who advocates against the death penalty, agrees. A retired corrections officer in New Jersey and Bucks County, Rose said inequalities exist within the system that prevent people from getting fair trials. Factors such as a defendant’s wealth, the county where the crime occurred and the philosophy of the district attorney prosecuting the case all play roles outside of the crime itself.
“When you work in corrections, you realize the guiltiest people aren’t the ones on death row,” said Rose, who opposes capital punishment in part because of his Quaker faith.
The growing infrequency of the use of the death penalty could become a constitutional issue, said Lloyd Steffen, the director of the Center for Dialogue, Ethics and Spirituality at Lehigh University. In 2011, there were approximately 15,000 murders across the country, but only 45 people were executed.
With less than a tenth of one percent of murders resulting in capital punishment, it could meet the unusual portion of the ban on cruel and unusual punishments, he said.
He pointed to Charles Cullen, the most prolific serial killer in New Jersey history, as proof. Cullen pleaded guilty to killing 29 patients by overdosing them with drugs while working as a nurse in medical centers throughout New Jersey and the Lehigh Valley. In return, he was sentenced to life without parole.
“This is a mass murderer — a serial killer. You can make the case that his crimes are worse than many of the people that end up on death row,” he said.
On the other end of the debate, the Lehigh Valley’s two district attorneys argue the death penalty’s main problems are not with the state but with federal courts. Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin and Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli both noted that death penalty laws have repeatedly been ruled constitutional and the state’s Supreme Court has consistently found death penalty convicts received a fair trial.
“The death penalty has been studied to death,” Morganelli said.
What’s causing the delays in nearly all of the death row cases is the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, which handles federal appeal cases out of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. Both district attorneys said the judges currently assigned to the court oppose the death penalty and routinely overturn death sentences.
As a result, fighting the appeals in court becomes expensive and judges end up vacating sentences decades after jurors reached their decision.
“The death penalty has no finality to it, as ironic as it sounds,” Martin said.
His office is pursuing a re-sentencing against Harvey M. Robinson, the first recorded serial killer in Allentown’s history.
Robinson was convicted of murdering three women as a teenager, but all three of the death sentences were overturned in federal court in 2006. Martin said his office is re-filing for the death sentence against Robinson for the murder of Charlotte Schmoyer, a 15-year-old newspaper deliverer.
“It’s a never ending process in these cases. The only fix would be to require a closer look at the cases by the U.S. Supreme Court,” Martin said.
With little chance of death actually coming, both prosecutors have instead used it as a bargaining chip. In the last year, the two district attorneys have repeatedly agreed to remove the possibility of the death penalty in return for a guilty plea. Recently, John McGlinchey agreed to life in prison for shooting Kimiko Moon in her Easton home and David Rapoport copped to killing his pregnant girlfriend Jennifer Snyder in a rural location in Lehigh County.
The study, which will be made up of four senators and a large team of advisers, has not yet been formed, a Greenleaf aide said. The study can take no more than two years to complete.