After Gov. Tom Wolf announced he was halting executions until the results of a bipartisan study on the fairness, cost and efficacy of capital punishment in the commonwealth are released and addressed, I was dismayed to read comments from the Dauphin County prosecutor calling the governor's decision a "punch in the stomach" to murder victims' families.
As a former prosecutor and capital defense attorney, I have witnessed the true suffering of murder victims' families first hand, and there is nothing more gut wrenching.
But it is cruel to tell victims' families that they need the death penalty to achieve justice or closure, because the death penalty isn't even an option in the vast majority of murder cases.
In 2013, there were 594 murders committed in Pennsylvania and three offenders joined death row that year. If justice for the victims' families is defined as the imposition of a death sentence, then what of the other 591 Pennsylvanians that were killed and their families, all of whom have suffered the horrors of a murder in the family?
Many of these crimes are never even solved, let alone prosecuted with the goal of getting a death sentence.
Even in cases where a death sentence is handed down, the promise of an execution frequently goes unfulfilled.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Pennsylvanians have imposed 412 death sentences since the death penalty was reinstated in 1974, and yet 250 of those death verdicts have been reversed on appeal due to serious errors, with only six death sentences reinstated, and yet justice was served.
Only three executions have been carried out in during this same period.
If awarding the death penalty were nothing more than a calculus of weighing the value of a murder victim's life against that of the offender, the victim's virtue would tip the scale every time. But justice is much more complicated than simply executing an offender in retribution for a victim's life.
The U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the automatic award of a death sentence upon conviction for capital murder since 1976, reasoning that juries must sentence the offender and not just the crime. Our criminal justice system looks at offenders, many of whom have had wretched lives that may explain - but never excuse - the terrible crimes they commit. Justice demands that criminal sentencing weigh all relevant factors around the severity of the crime and the culpability of the offender. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court has determined that juveniles and the intellectually impaired are less capable of making informed decisions and sound judgments, and therefore should be exempted from execution.
So why is the argument made that the death-penalty moratorium robs the victims' families of justice? Is justice for the victims only defined by executing offenders? Why is the victim's value defined by what happens to the person who killed him or her?
Surely there have been prosecutors in Pennsylvania who could have decided to seek the death penalty in death-eligible first-degree murder cases and chose not to, and yet justice was served. Surely there are prosecutors in Pennsylvania who initially filed capital murder charges against an offender, and then decided to offer a plea bargain for life in prison without parole, and yet justice was served.
In contrast to the death penalty, life without parole is a severe and certain punishment that means what it says: offenders will remain in prison until their natural deaths. Victims' families don't have to spend decades waiting for an execution that may never come.
It is a popular refrain that the death penalty is reserved for the "worst of the worse." However, in my experience, the death penalty is a punishment reserved exclusively for the poor, for the mentally ill and for offenders whose victims were white.
I submit that achieving justice is about much more than simply getting a death sentence. The late writer David Foster Wallace once said that leaders "help us overcome the limitations of our own individual ... weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own."
I urge the state prosecutors and the police who serve us all to join and support Gov. Wolf's leadership by making us all do the hard work to define what justice truly is in each and every case without resorting to the tag line that execution is the answer.