In an op-ed essay published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on June 17, Dean Daniel Filler said the Pennsylvania Supreme Court may have little choice but to deem the state’s death penalty unconstitutional.
A case currently before the state’s high court is shining a spotlight on myriad deficiencies in the death penalty system, Filler wrote.
Pennsylvania has one of the largest death rows in the nation, Filler observed, adding that it is the only state in the U.S. that does not fund a statewide capital defender or contribute to the cost of representing indigent defendants.
An authority on the death penalty, Filler was appointed in 2012 by the Pennsylvania Joint State Government Commission to serve on the state’s Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment, where he chaired a subcommittee that focused on procedures in death penalty cases.
The lack of a statewide capital defender or state funding to represent defendants accused of capital crimes places an enormous financial burden on counties that they cannot bear, Filler said.
“Without adequate representation, Pennsylvania has sentenced numerous defendants to death only to find that they were severely mentally ill or intellectually disabled, and therefore ineligible for a death sentence,” Filler wrote.
Filler notes that other findings by the advisory committee: a severe overrepresentation of black defendants on death row, the high financial cost of death penalty cases and a number of convictions overturned due to error, have previously been identified by scholars, the American Bar Association and other groups.
“While the legislature has been happy to repeatedly expand the reach of the death penalty, it has shown no appetite to repair the system and address its critical flaws,” he wrote. “Lacking the legislative power to fix the problems, the court may have little choice but to dispense with the system as a whole. Our society has rules and norms and at some point, a court can no longer ignore a death penalty system that does not conform to them.”