Death Penalty Testimony

By Andre Dennis

February 22, 2000

Before the Senate Judiciary Committee


Good morning Mr. Chairman and members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. I am Andre Dennis, a partner in the law firm of Stradley, Ronon, Stevens & Young, LLP and a past Chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association. I appear here today at the request of our current Chancellor, Doreen Davis, and on behalf of the 12,000 members who make up the Philadelphia Bar Association. I am pleased to present testimony on Senate Bill 952, printer's number 1084, sponsored by Senator Edward Helfrick.

Let me outline for you the position of the Philadelphia Bar Association. In November 1997 our Association’s Board of Governors passed a Resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty in Pennsylvania “until such time that fairness in its administration can be assured.” In taking that step, we became the first local bar association in the nation to support a moratorium. We also joined the American Bar Association and the Pennsylvania Bar Association in taking this position. As we said then: “there exists a substantial risk that the death penalty continues to be imposed in an arbitrary capricious and discriminatory manner.” That is still the case. We have also been on record in our opposition with respect to imposition of Capital punishment on the mentally handicapped and juveniles as well as a penalty in Aggravated circumstances. Although we do not have a specific policy on SB 952, P.N. 1084, I am here to again convey the Bar's support for the concept of a moratorium with the creation of a Commission to study the death penalty.

The recent interest by the General assembly in the death penalty, through SB 952, P.N. 1084, and this public hearing, is not an isolated event. Indeed, other states are conducting the same type of review. Recently, one state issued a moratorium of its Death Penalty law. At this point in my testimony, I will briefly summarize the action afoot in the other states. My most recent count is that 12 states of the 38 states that have the death penalty, are considering legislation similar to SB 952, P.N. 1084. The following are some highlights:

ILLINOIS

On January 31, 2000, Illinois Governor George Ryan, issued the first moratorium in the nation. Governor Ryan cited "a shameful record of convicting innocent people and putting them on death row." The courts left Governor Ryan, a supporter of the death penalty, with little choice on his decision for a moratorium as Illinois sentenced 13 persons to death row who were ultimately exonerated and freed. These 13 Illinois residents make up 85 persons in total who have been found innocent and released from this nation's prison system since 1973. Interestingly, Governor Ryan has met with little public criticism regarding his decision; rather it is a measure of how public outrage over wrongful convictions has become prevalent.

NEBRASKA

The Nebraska legislature, citing racial disparity, passed a moratorium, only to have it vetoed by the Governor.

NEW HAMPSHIRE

Legislation to halt executions has been introduced in New Hampshire and was the subject of recent public hearings by members of New Hampshire's House Criminal Justice and Policy Protection Committee.

FEDERAL GOVERNMENT

On February 4, President Clinton said that he would consider a request to halt federal executions in response to a letter written by Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold. Feingold's letter asked for the suspension and to have Attorney General Janet Reno conduct an investigation "in light of the serious questions raised in Illinois and elsewhere."

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VIRGINIA

On January 18, 2000, Charlottesville City Council passed a moratorium resolution. The City Council's resolution urges the state's legislature, Congress and the President to halt executions and to conduct an investigation.

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA

Right here in our Commonwealth, the Philadelphia City Council on February 11, 2000, called for a moratorium on executions in Pennsylvania making it the largest U.S. city so far to demand a suspension of the death penalty.

My point in highlighting these examples is to show that this Committee's review is not an isolated event. Your actions are in step with the rest of the nation. And this whole issue is all about justice and ensuring due process.

The late U. S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall once wrote, "The question with which we must deal is not whether a substantial proportion of American citizens would today, if polled, opine that Capital punishment is barbarously cruel, but whether they would find it to be so in light of all information presently available." Your review and possible vote on SB 952, P.N. 1084, or any other moratorium legislation, is not a "politically" easy vote. It could be met with public criticism and during an election year, proponents of the death penalty will most assuredly raise the issue. They may attempt to portray you as "weak" on crime or "sympathetic" to criminals.

However, let me advise you of a few recent public opinion polls that evidence a weakening of the strong public support for the death penalty. The first poll is from Kentucky, where the availability of life without parole has altered support for capital punishment. The survey was conducted by the Survey Research Center of the University of Louisville, Kentucky. The survey results are:

  • Support for the death penalty among Kentucky residents dropped from 69.5% in 1989 and 69.1% in 1997 to 59.2% in 1999.
  • When given a choice between Capital punishment and life in prison without parole, 53.9% favored the latter.
  • Of residents polled who "strongly support" Capital punishment, 38.2% changed their opinion in favor of life without parole when given a sentencing opinion.
The second poll was conducted by an ABC News.com telephone survey. According to that poll, support for Capital punishment has fallen from a high of 77% in 1996 to 64% now. Support for Capital punishment fell below 50% when given the option of life without parole. When asked which sentencing option they preferred, the support for Capital punishment dropped to 48%. The survey used a sampling of 1,006 adults and a three-point margin of error.

If I may be so bold to say that your response is probably, "sure, Mr. Dennis, you are using polls from other jurisdictions and Pennsylvania already has the second option for punishment. Even with the choice, Pennsylvanians want the death penalty." That retort is valid, but, I ask you to refer back to Justice Marshall's statement, take another look at the issue in light of all the information presently available, such as, Kentucky, Illinois, Charlottesville, Philadelphia, and the Federal government.

Before I conclude my testimony, I would like to say a word about a statement reportedly given by a spokesperson for Governor Ridge. The statement is to the effect that “We [the Governor and his assistants] are not considering a moratorium … If someone has evidence they were wrongly convicted and sentenced, opportunities for appeal are available in abundance.” With all due respect to the Governor and his assistants, that misses the point. The moratorium and studies mandated by Senate Bill 952 are calculated to determine whether there are systemic failures in our justice system that deny capital defendants fundamental fairness guaranteed by the law and that taint the imposition and execution of capital punishment. It will also provide additional time to focus on first degree murder convictions in a system with processes that may be flawed. You have taken a brave and courageous first step in holding this public hearing. I simply ask that you take the next, equally brave and courageous step, in passing SB 952, P.N. 1084.

I have deliberately omitted from my testimony a theoretical and scholarly discussion of Capital punishment. I am more than willing to engage in such a discussion at a later time before this Committee or the Commission set forth by SB 952, P.N. 1084, if adopted. I sincerely thank you for holding this public hearing and honoring me by inviting me to testify. On behalf of the Philadelphia Bar Association, thank you for your attention.