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Pa.’s death penalty called into question

July 24, 2018

A new bipartisan report on Pennsylvania’s death penalty released this month found that our state’s capital punishment system is deeply flawed -- something I’ve long felt to be true based on my personal experience with it. It is time for Pennsylvania to rethink the death penalty. As someone who has seen this system up close, I believe we could do so much better.

My father and stepmother were brutally tortured and murdered in 2001, and over my and my sister’s strong objection, the district attorney sought the death penalty for one of the three people who killed them. I did not want to suffer through decades of uncertainty and legal appeals that come with a death verdict. Nor did I think that more killing would honor my father and stepmother’s legacy. It would only create a new set of victims.

During the trial, we met the family of one of the young men who was on trial. His family was deeply sorrowful about what their son and loved one had done, and we connected through our shared grief. I heard a mournful wail come from the family of that young man. It was a cry that I will never forget. It was a cry I felt in my bones, and one that I could relate to personally.

Despite my and my sister’s clear opposition to the death penalty, it was continually said throughout the trial that justice was being sought for us. There were three individuals convicted of killing my father and stepmother, two who received life without the possibility of parole, and one who received death. I’ve found no more healing or justice from the idea that someone has been condemned to die over my and my sister’s objection. In fact, the way our capital punishment system works -- or doesn’t work as the case may be -- all three of them will probably die in prison from old age.

The bipartisan report on the death penalty found that out of the 170 capital cases in Pennsylvania that have been reversed, 97 percent resulted in a sentence other than death -- making the death penalty a hollow promise in most cases.

Yet, hundreds of thousands of dollars will be expended trying to carry out that execution -- far more than if that young man had simply been sentenced to die in prison like his co-defendants. The report found that “a death sentence adds about $2 million to a murder case.” And what do we get for all of that additional money spent?

The death penalty provides no additional public safety benefit over a sentence of life in prison without parole. An execution can’t bring my loved ones back.

By defining justice solely by what happens to the offenders means we miss out on opportunities to strengthen our communities after trauma and invest in programs and services that prevent future acts of violence. We could also do so much more for victims’ families after they experience a loss, everything from helping them find ways to cope with the grief, to helping them navigate the funerals, the legal system and the future.

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