Virginia’s abolition of the death penalty, effective July 1, marks a dramatic turn in the fight to abolish capital punishment in the United States. With public support for capital punishment waning, five other states have abolished it in the last decade — Illinois, Connecticut, Maryland, New Hampshire, and Colorado — replacing the death penalty with mandatory life sentences.
But Virginia is the first Southern state to end capital punishment. Moreover, none of the other 22 states that have done so had used the death penalty as long, or as often.
Since 1608, Virginia has executed 1,361 people — the highest number and longest period of executions in the United States. After the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, the commonwealth conducted 113 executions, the most per-capita in the nation.
Virginia's brutal, 400-year history of executions includes public hangings — by rope and even chains — electrocutions, the burning of a female slave, and, most recently, poisoning by lethal injection.
In ending this barbaric practice, Virginia's governor and General Assembly cited stark racial disparities in executions, as well as exorbitant legal costs.
If Virginia, with its historical ties to slavery and capital punishment, can abolish the death penalty, any state can. The same problems persist in the 27 remaining states with death penalty laws, including Pennsylvania: Untenable legal costs, racially discriminatory applications of the law, failure to deter violent crime, and the possibility of executing the innocent.
The high cost of death
Pennsylvania's moratorium on executions will expire when term-limited Gov. Tom Wolf leaves office in January 2023. With the moratorium winding down, state legislators should introduce and support bills — now — that would abolish capital punishment.
Calling the death penalty “ineffective, unjust, and expensive,” Wolf imposed the moratorium in 2015. Even so, Pennsylvania’s death penalty statute remains. Capital cases can continue to be tried and appealed, with taxpayer-funded public defenders and court-appointed attorneys representing the vast majority of defendants.
Pennsylvania conducted its last execution in 1999; only three took place since 1976. Even so, the death penalty statute incurred an estimated $800 million in legal expenses, concluded a 2016 study based on statistics from the nonprofit Urban Institute. That adds up to more than $250 million per execution in Pennsylvania. Those stunning cost estimates conform with dozens of studies nationwide on death penalty expenses.
Even the most ardent death penalty supporters should consider it a poor return on investment. The money could have been spent on real crime control and prevention measures, such as mental health and drug treatment, as well as victims’ services.
“Fiscal conservatives have become increasingly critical of the death penalty,” Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told The Herald’s editorial page.
Death penalty cases — in Pennsylvania, always a murder — demand more expert witnesses, investigations, and evaluations; they contain automatic rights to appeal, and require an additional defense attorney for sentencing. All in all, they are “far more complicated and far more expensive,” Kathleen Lucas, executive director for Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, told the editorial page.
Since 1976, more than 400 Pennsylvania prisoners were sentenced to death, but most convictions were overturned and re-sentenced to life or less. Another 10 death row prisoners were exonerated, more than three times as many as were executed.
A report released in 2018, by a bi-partisan death penalty task force, stated capital cases were about 12 times as expensive as non-capital cases. The report also noted stark racial disparities: Blacks make up 12 percent of Pennsylvania’s population but more than half of its 150 death row prisoners.
Wolf cited these problems in imposing the moratorium. Unlike Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, however, Wolf is not pushing for abolition. Northam, a physician and conservative Democrat who signed the bill March 24, courageously made abolishing the death penalty a priority.
Unhappily, Pennsylvania lacks that kind of bold leadership at the top. In an email exchange with the editorial page, Wolf spokeswoman Lyndsay Kensinger declined to characterize the governor’s views on abolishing capital punishment.
With the governor missing in action, legislators need to step up. In truth, state representatives would have eliminated any other costly and ineffective government program long ago. It’s time to choose life, instead of continuing to waste hundreds of millions of dollars on death.