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Pennsylvania citizens take second look at executions

December 13, 2005

Though there have been 7,000 murders in Pennsylvania in the last 10 years, the size of the state's death-row population has only increased slightly, according to The Associated Press.

Writing from the state capital, AP's Mark Scolforo noted that while there were 197 death-row inmates in state prisons in 1995, there are only 223 today.

The death penalty may be losing favor with Pennsylvanians, or at least those citizens who make decisions on prosecutions and sentencing.

Since 1995, Scolforo wrote, there have been only three executions of Pennsylvania inmates , while another 72 death-row inmates had their sentences reduced or were granted new trials.

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The Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., believes that a number of exonerations based on DNA evidence and a fuller use of the life-without-parole sentence are behind the drop.

There are two questions that are key to any discussion of the death penalty. The first is: Is it really a deterrent to crime?

In July 2001, the Maryland Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy (MCCSP) looked at a variety of recent studies on that subject. It found that even in Texas, which has a relatively large number of death-penalty sentences and executions, it was not a deterrent.

MCCSP noted that other studies showed that some states, including Oklahoma, actually experienced increases in killings after executions resumed there.

MCCSP noted, however, that many death-penalty proponents believe that if death sentences were carried out more swiftly, as opposed to allowing appeals to drag on for years, it would be a greater deterrent.

Why is the appeals process so lengthy? Blame the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 1995 look at the high court ruling that allowed the resumption of the death penalty, The Washington Post's David Von Drehle found that the decision in Furman v. Georgia so muddied the waters that lawyers were given multiple new grounds to oppose death sentences.

Perhaps that is why some prosecutors are now deciding that it makes more sense to seek life without parole than to embark on what seems an endless quest to get a sentence of death enforced. It's a position worth considering.

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