Krasner asks court to declare Pennsylvania death penalty unconstitutional

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner (Photo by Jared Piper/PHL Council)

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner has asked the state's Supreme Court to declare Pennsylvania's application of the death penalty unconstitutional, the district attorney's office (DAO) announced Tuesday.

After a comprehensive review of the 155 death sentences issued by the state between 1978 and 2017, the DAO found what it called "grave inconsistencies and inequities that implicate the reliable application of the death penalty in the Commonwealth."

The district attorney's office found that the death penalty is more often than not applied to non-white defendants who cannot afford legal counsel.

"The quality of your defense, particularly when capital punishment is on the table, should not be determined by the amount of money in your wallet,” Krasner said. “We have data showing that the ultimate sentence is not being given to the worst of the worst -- it’s being given to poor people and black people."

According to the DAO, 72% of death sentences in Philadelphia were overturned during the post-conviction review process, usually due to deficiencies in representation.

“We have a system in which wealthy, white defendants can buy their way out of the system and evade consequences for years or decades, while poor black defendants sit on Pennsylvania’s death row for an average of 17 years -- on the taxpayers’ dime -- before their death sentences are overturned," Krasner said.

“I was a poor person of color, and I didn’t receive adequate representation,” said Anthony Wright, who served 25 years following a wrongful conviction for rape and murder. “Losing your entire adolescence and adulthood simply because you couldn’t afford a rich man’s lawyer -- it’s wrong, it’s not justice, yet it happened to me and to countless others like me."

The review conducted by Krasner found that of Philadelphia defendants currently on death row, 91% are members of racial minority groups and 80% were represented by court-appointed counsel, suggesting they could not afford to hire their own legal counsel.

Pennsylvania Sen. Katie Muth (D-Montgomery), Rep. Frank Ryan (R-Lebanon) and Rep. Chris Rabb (D-Philadelphia) are currently leading a legislative effort to repeal the Commonwealth’s death penalty.

“The unconstutionality of the death penalty should not only shock our conscience, it should call all of us to action, to join together across political parties, faiths and government offices, to make real and lasting change in our criminal justice system,” Muth said