Pennsylvania activists fight for moratorium

Pittsburgh demonstration against the Death Penalty
By: Joe Cleffie

The Pennsylvania State Senate is considering legislation that would put a two-year moratorium on executions.

The bill calls for a halt to executions while officials investigate four points: 1) whether innocent people are sentenced to death; 2) if capital-case defendants receive competent legal representation and the resources needed to put on a defense; 3) whether racism plays a role in who gets sentenced to death; and 4) if prosecutors handle all cases the same. The bill was inspired by recent campaigns for moratoriums in other states, most notably Nebraska and Illinois.

The issues of competent defense and racism are the ones that really strike a chord with Pennsylvanians. Until recently, there was no capital public defenders' office in Philadelphia, where most of the state's death-row prisoners come from. That means that many lawyers who defended capital cases had never done so before. The majority of stays of execution granted in Pennsylvania have been over the issues of lawyers' competency and resources.

But racism in sentencing in Pennsylvania is the biggest issue. While the national percentage for African Americans on death row is a little more than 40 percent -- already a disgustingly high figure -- Blacks make up 61 percent of inmates on Pennsylvania's death row. The majority are from Philadelphia, where the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal has shone light on the racist tactics of the Philadelphia police.

Before the bill can come up for a vote, it must get through the judiciary committee, which will decide whether to hold hearings in early fall. The issue may heat up then since activity around Mumia's case will also increase.

The fight is going to be tough, but there is support out there. On June 21, activists held a press conference and protest to launch the activity around the issue. The event drew close to 100 people. Activists around the state must start now in building support for a moratorium.

For more information, call the Pittsburgh Campaign to End the Death Penalty at 412-441-1368.