Capital punishment in Pennsylvania is a failure, Berks County’s district attorney says.
Pennsylvania has the fourth-highest number of death row inmates out of 50 states but has one of the lowest execution rates, according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Justice.
“It is clear that the death penalty in Pennsylvania is a failure,” said Berks County District Attorney John T. Adams.
The appeals process drags on and costs taxpayers a lot of money, he said.
“The fact of the matter is we do not put people to death,” Adams said. “The same issues are litigated time and time again. I don’t foresee a change.”
Only three people have been executed in Pennsylvania since 1977 and all of them dropped their appeals and asked to die.
Allan L. Sodomsky, a Reading defense attorney and a former prosecutor, said appeals are costing the state millions of dollars.
Each person sentenced to death is automatically granted a lifetime of appeals and access to taxpayer-funded public defenders who do battle with taxpayer-funded prosecutors under the eye of taxpayer-funded judges, Sodomsky said.
“If you’re sentenced to life, you don’t have access to any of that,” Sodomsky said.
There are 3,158 inmates under sentence of death in 36 states and the federal Bureau of Prisons.
California, Florida, Texas and Pennsylvania held more than half those inmates.
But Pennsylvania and California didn’t execute anybody in 2011. Texas executed 13 and Florida executed two.
The number of prisoners on Pennsylvania’s death row decreased to 215 in 2010 from 218 in 2009, but not due to executions. Two more people were sentenced to die while, of those already on death row, two died awaiting execution and three had their convictions or sentences overturned, according to the report.
As of last Tuesday, there were 207 death row inmates in Pennsylvania, according to the state Department of Corrections.
Eleven of them were sentenced in Berks.
One of them is convicted double-murderer Ronald F. Puksar, who last week was denied a hearing to present new evidence.
Berks County President Judge Jeffrey L. Schmehl ruled that Puksar’s request for the hearing was not filed within the required one year of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Oct. 2, 2000, ruling denying Puksar’s appeals.
Puksar, 70, was convicted and sentenced to death in the April 15, 1991, slayings of his brother and sister-in-law, Thomas I. and Donna L. Puksar.
Puksar will now file an appeal of that decision, Adams predicted.
As appeals mount, the time elapsed between sentence and execution has steadily grown longer, to 178 months in 2010 from 74 months in 1984, according to the federal report.
“A perfect example is George Banks,” Adams said. “He murdered 13 of his family members in the early 1980s and he’s alive and well. That case was out of Wilkes-Barre.”
Adams said that’s why his philosophy is to rarely seek the death penalty.
“When the death penalty is imposed, the victims will never get closure at this rate (of execution),” Adams said. “I am very conservative in seeking the ultimate penalty because the financial consequences and the collateral consequences in manpower overcome the need to seek the death penalty.”
In some states, executions have become commonplace, Sodomsky said.
Sodomsky said as he has grown older he has become less comfortable with that, even though as a prosecutor he asked for and received the death penalty for defendants.
“I’ve come to the realization that it’s just not appropriate for us to be in the business of killing our citizens, even the bad ones,” Sodomsky said.
Sodomsky believes that’s part of the reason the death penalty is not often carried out in Pennsylvania.
“Although we are a state that has legalized the death penalty, we’re a state that for whatever reason is not interested in getting into the business of executing people,” he said.