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Quakers discuss Pa.'s death row

April 10, 2000|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Local Quakers on Sunday hosted a gathering to discuss the death penalty in Pennsylvania, which they said has 225 inmates on death row.

Quaker, or Society of Friends, philosophy mandates a belief that only God should have the power to take a human life, so life in prison without parole is adequate punishment.

According to a flyer published by Pennsylvania Abolitionists United Against the Death Penalty and handed out Sunday at the Lindia Drive Society of Friends meeting house, Gov. Tom Ridge has signed 170 death warrants since taking office in 1995.

Only 71 of the 225 persons on death row are white, the group said, with Philadelphia-area residents accounting for more than half of the total.

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A Franklin County jury sentenced Albert Reid of Chambersburg to death in 1998 for the murder of a local woman and her teenage daughter. And Franklin County District Attorney Jack Nelson on Friday said he is seeking the death penalty against Michael Brandon Singley of Chambersburg, who is charged in a double-murder case now going through the court system.

Mary Wilt, a Lutheran from Mechanicsburg, Pa., and founder of Advocates for Justice and Freedom, addressed Sunday's gathering.

She discussed her efforts before the courts and the state Legislature to help Vincent Johnson, a convicted killer serving a life term in Pennsylvania. He has been behind bars for 28 years. Anderson said she has researched his case thoroughly and is convinced of his innocence. She said Johnson is an example of how the state might have executed an innocent person had he ended up on death row.

"District attorneys will do all they can to stop appeals in death penalty cases," Wilt said. She said it is often difficult to talk to those who strongly support capital punishment.

"The question to ask them is, 'What if it were you and you were innocent?'" she said. "It can happen to anyone who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"The general population is beginning to listen to that question."

Wilt said she believes about 10 percent of the people on Pennsylvania's death row are innocent.

Quakers support a bill in the state Senate that is calling for a two-year moratorium on executions, much like one signed earlier this year by the governor of Illinois. Supporters of the bill claimed it came about because some death row inmates in Illinois turned out to be innocent.

According to its literature, the abolitionist group believes 23 innocent people have been executed in the 20th century. It also claims 75 inmates have been moved off death rows since 1972 because of new evidence in their cases.

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