September 24, 2010

Harrisburg, PA – Pennsylvania’s District Attorneys today warned the legislature that Senate Bill 628 would end the historic role of juries in determining whether capital punishment is an appropriate punishment and instead place it in the hands of judges prior to trial.  The bill was reported out of the House Judiciary Committee by a 14-12 vote earlier this week.  The bill is scheduled to be voted on by the full House next week.

“Senate Bill 628 will effectively tell Pennsylvanians that the powers that be in Harrisburg do not trust the people to determine capital punishment issues,” said Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association President and Dauphin County District Attorney Edward M. Marsico, Jr.  “I don’t think Pennsylvania wants to be a state that says judges are better suited than citizens to make fair criminal justice decisions.”

Senate Bill 628 is opposed by police officers, district attorneys, and victims’ groups.  At issue is the bill’s provision that would allow defendants in capital cases to litigate the issue of mental retardation before a judge, before a trial even commences.  Such a change in the law not only marginalizes juries, but also hands criminal defense lawyers new litigation tactics, can be problematic for witnesses, victims and victims’ families, and has the potential to further stigmatize individuals with mental disabilities.

“A pre-trial process will inevitably lead to victims and witnesses having to testify twice, and will delay the trial process,” said Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association Legislative Chair and Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams.  “A primary concern is that during this time victims and witnesses will be intimidated.”

“Everyone agrees that the mentally disabled should not be subject to the death penalty,” said Marsico. “At issue here is a change in the law that will hand criminal defense attorneys a new litigation tactic to help murder defendants avoid the death penalty.  That’s not justice, and neither is this bill’s potential to unjustly stigmatize people with mental disabilities.”

In 1997, the state legislature passed a constitutional amendment that reaffirmed the people’s right to trial by jury.  It was later approved by statewide referendum.  In 2006, House Bill 698, which supported jury determination of a capital case defendant’s mental disability, passed the House by a vote of 169-28, but died in the Senate.

“The people of this Commonwealth have voted to preserve the right to a jury trial and just a few years ago the House overwhelmingly voted in support of jury determination on this issue,” said Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association Vice President and Crawford County District Attorney Francis Schultz.  “Senate Bill 628 seeks to reverse that and take power away from our citizen jurors.  As district attorneys, we believe that when a cop is killed or a young child brutally murdered, the people of the community should be trusted to determine whether capital punishment is warranted, not a judge who may have an anti-death penalty bias,”

Marsico, Schultz and Williams urged the full House of Representatives to defeat Senate Bill 628 on final passage.