HARRISBURG, Pa. — The association of Pennsylvania prosecutors said Monday it sees some positives in a new report that found death sentences are more common when the victim is white and less common when the victim is black.
The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association released a statement noting researchers found the death penalty is not disproportionately targeted against black or Hispanic defendants, a conclusion prosecutors described as a vindication of their evenhandedness in applying it.
“For so long, those who have sought to abolish the death penalty have argued that the race of the defendant plays the critical role in decisions about who gets the death penalty,” said Berks County District Attorney John Adams, president of the prosecutors’ group. “This report squarely debunks that theory.”
Penn State professor Jeff Ulmer, one of the lead researchers, said the prosecutors are “factually accurate” concerning the 197-page study’s finding regarding the races of defendants, but he said the report did not delve into whatever role race may play in decisions to arrest, charge and convict people of first-degree murder.
“We did in fact find disparities by race of victim and great differences in the prosecutorial and court decision-making between counties, along with a finding that type of defense attorney matters in some ways,” Ulmer said.
The study found no “overall pattern of disparity” by prosecutors in seeking the death penalty against black or Hispanic defendants. It found black and Hispanic defendants who killed white victims were not more likely than a typical defendant to get a death sentence.
The study, by Penn State’s Justice Center for Research and produced for the state’s Interbranch Commission for Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness , also found the prosecution of death penalty cases varies widely among counties.
The district attorneys’ association said that may reflect the state’s commonwealth form of government and emphasis on local decision making.
“District attorneys have to follow the rule of law and the rules governing (the) death penalty are among the strictest,” the association said. “However, prosecutorial discretion does still have a role, and ultimately that discretion is accountable to the voters during each election.”
The Penn State researchers found that a white victim raises the odds of a death sentence by 8 percent and a black victim lowers it by 6 percent. It drew from records over an 11-year period.
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf imposed a moratorium on the death penalty shorting after taking office in 2015, citing concerns about what he described as a “flawed system that has been proven to be an endless cycle of court proceedings as well as ineffective, unjust, and expensive.”
There are 157 men on Pennsylvania’s death row, but only three people have been executed in the state’s recent history. All three had voluntarily relinquished their appeals.
Wolf said his moratorium will remain until he reads the results of a Senate-commissioned study of capital punishment, a review that may include findings from the new Penn State-produced study.