Faith Leaders Join Krasner’s Call to End Pa. Death Penalty

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Faith leaders from the Philadelphia region and across the nation are urging the abolition of the death penalty in Pennsylvania following a Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office study finding that capital punishment is unconstitutionally applied to mostly poor defendants of color. District Attorney Larry Krasner announced the results of the DAO’s study concluding that the death penalty as applied in Pennsylvania is unconstitutional.

“Upon being asked to file a response in the matter of Jermont Cox v. the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, my office conducted a study of 155 death penalty cases in Philadelphia – where the majority of capital sentences have originated over the last four decades,” said District Attorney Krasner. “What we found was undeniable evidence that the quality of a defendant’s defense dramatically decreases for the poor and persons of color, and that race and income disproportionately determine whether a person will be sent to death row. Not even supporters of capital punishment can justify these outcomes with integrity or honesty. As the son of a preacher whose faith informs my values, I am honored to stand with these faith leaders of diverse backgrounds.”

“The movement to build a more just and peaceful society requires both faith in humankind’s capacity to heal and rehabilitate, as well as an adherence to facts, instead of fearful mythologies about people who are unlike us. This landmark brief by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office offers concrete data on which we must develop policies centered around people’s inherent goodness and capacity to make amends,” said Sister Helen Prejean, internationally renowned activist and opponent of capital punishment, and the author of Dead Man Walking. “The DAO’s study of the death penalty as applied in Pennsylvania over nearly four decades shows that the least of us – the poorest, the most marginalized, and the most vulnerable are too often sentenced to death. District Attorney Larry Krasner is sworn to uphold the law and the rights of all people, but when the law is applied unjustly, he is called to act. I urge the State Supreme Court, Attorney General Josh Shapiro and the General Assembly to put electioneering and politics aside and bring Pennsylvania’s death penalty to an end, once and for all.”

“With this historic brief, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office has provided incontrovertible evidence that the death penalty in Pennsylvania is applied inconsistently, with prejudice, and is fundamentally unjust,” said the Rev. James Martin, author and editor at large of America: The Jesuit Review. “It is unconscionable that in Philadelphia, 82% of capital defendants currently on death row are members of racial minorities, and disturbing that in nearly all of the 112 death sentences that were overturned upon appeal, the defendant ultimately was not re-sentenced to capital punishment. Pope Francis has said, and church teaching affirms, that the death penalty is impermissible, because it is an affront to human life. As both a Catholic priest and a Philadelphia native, I applaud District Attorney Krasner’s efforts to opt for compassion over vengeance, for dignity over despair, and for life over death.”

“Islam requires us to be supportive of justice, even against ourselves, whether rich or poor, family or otherwise. We are all aware that capital punishment, the most extreme application of the law, is applied with inequity,” said Imam Kenneth Nuriddin, resident imam for the Philadelphia Masjid.

“As a clergy person, I am opposed to taking the life of anyone, so I applaud the decision of District Attorney Lawrence Krasner. But beyond my moral opposition to the death penalty, I am also aware of the disproportionate ways in which race and class impact the outcome in convictions and sentencing. In that light, taking the life of one person who might later be found to be innocent is one too many,” said Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, pastor of Philadelphia’s historic Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

“As people of faith and conscience, the death penalty violates our moral and spiritual responsibilities,” said Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari of Kol Tzedek Synagogue in West Philadelphia. “In the Jewish tradition specifically, it undermines our belief in the ongoing capacity for repair, forgiveness, healing, transformation, and restorative justice which is built into the fabric of the universe. And it transgresses our understanding that every human being is created in the image of the Divine. All of our decisions in the court of justice must be made with these values in mind.”

“The latest study by the District Attorney’s Office reinforces what we have known for decades: the death penalty is arbitrary and fundamentally flawed beyond repair. An astonishing 112 out of 155 death sentences were overturned, most often due to ineffective assistance of counsel. It is clear that we are not sentencing and executing the ‘worst of the worst,’ but the poorest of the poor, and disproportionately people of color,” said Shane Claiborne, founder of Kensington-based service organization The Simple Way and a leader of Red Letter Christians. “There are no rich folks on death row. The one without the capital gets the punishment. I am proud to stand with DA Larry Krasner as he calls on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to put an end to the death penalty. As the number of executions and death sentences reaches record lows and as public opposition to the death penalty reaches a record high, Pennsylvania has a chance to lead the nation in becoming the next abolitionist state. Pennsylvania, and the United States of America, will be even more beautiful without the death penalty.”

The DAO, following a December 2018 order by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, filed a response in the matter of Jermont Cox v. the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (No. 102 EM 2018) on July 15, 2019. The DAO conducted a comprehensive study of 155 death sentences issued by the Commonwealth to Philadelphia defendants between 1978 – when Pennsylvania enacted its current death penalty statute – and Dec. 31, 2017, before District Attorney Krasner took office. The DAO’s study found grave inconsistencies and inequities.

The study found that of the Philadelphia defendants currently on death row, 91% are members of racial minority groups, 82% are Black even though Black people are fewer than 45% of Philadelphia’s population, and 80% were represented by court-appointed counsel, meaning they could not afford an attorney.

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