In the last seven years in Pennsylvania, an estimated 50 inmates who were facing execution have received new leases on life behind bars, as federal and state judges overturn death sentences at a rate that is buoying opponents of capital punishment and infuriating prosecutors, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer. Departures from Pennsylvania’s death row – with 225 residents, the fourth largest behind California, Florida, and Texas – have roughly equaled arrivals since 2000, and could soon eclipse them.
The appeals pipeline is clogged with condemned inmates fighting for life without parole, at the least. Since 2000, about 75 of them have scored significant interim victories – new sentencing hearings or retrials – typically after courts found serious legal errors in the way their original cases were tried. The reversals since 2000 have come from a range of courts. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued about 20 percent of them. About half were overturned by state trial judges during the next level of review. Federal judges handed down about 30 percent of the reversals. “There is no death penalty in Pennsylvania,” said Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce L. Castor Jr. Four death sentences from the county have been thrown out in the last seven years. State Supreme Court Justice Ronald Castille, who often has voted to uphold death sentences, joined fellow jurists in overturning one last. He said the long appeals process and the reversals have meant that the death-penalty statute is not enforced. “It’s only on the books,” said the ex-Philadelphia district attorney.