Death Penalty and Death Row in USA

Fight the Death
Penalty in USA

Ridge doesn't want the legal system to be too fair

Editorial, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 30, 2001

The Ridge administration apparently was never thrilled about spending state money to train defense lawyers who appeal death penalty cases. Now that the legislature has forced his hand by appropriating money to take this minimal step toward balancing the scales of justice, the governor has employed a bizarre tactic to subvert the process.

He'll approve a program as long as the trainers don't include the people in the state who are the most experienced, knowledgeable and successful in handling death penalty appeals. The excuse given for excluding members of the Capital Habeus Corpus Unit of the federal public defenders office in Philadelphia is even more telling -- and troubling -- than the decision itself. "It's one thing to have a vigorous defense, said Ridge spokesman Kevin Shivers. "It's another thing to thwart the law. Here is an organization that files appeal after appeal in an effort to thwart the will of a jury."

Perhaps it is Mr. Shivers, or the governor himself, who should attend a training session or 2 to figure out that the appeals process is an integral part of the system. The fact that Philadelphia unit wins appeals is an indication that there may be problems with the way capital cases are handled at the trial level.

In recent years, lawyers from the unit won reversals in 10 death penalty cases that resulted in new trials or resentencings. The lawyers also were responsible for getting 200 stays of execution granted out of the 214 death warrants signed by Gov. Tom Ridge.

The governor may find this measure of success irksome, but it is a critical part of the system not a thwarting of it. And to suggest that those who are most expert in appealing death penalty cases cannot be involved in training others is shabby political posturing and gamesmanship.

Law schools around the state may also find that limitations on their freedom to structure such a training program are too chafing to accept. Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle had been chosen by the governor's office, but it has declined to get involved under the guidelines established.

The Post-Gazette has long opposed the death penalty for practical and humanitarian reasons. But even those who support capital punishment should favor a system that minimizes the endemic risks of unfairness and discrimination against poor and minority defendants.

Public defenders and court-appointed lawyers in these high-stakes and complicated cases often lack the experience and knowledge to do a creditable job. The state attorney general spends $614,000 to train his staff handling capital cases, and the General Assembly appropriated the same amount to train defenders.

That was a year ago. And still the governor is playing games.

Under the American system of justice, the state hires and trains and pays the prosecutors, but the ultimate state interest is not to see the conviction of everyone accused, but to see justice served. Convictions are more likely if the defense is hamstrung by lack of resources and lack of knowledge. But justice is thwarted.