Pennsylvania Supreme Court Criticizes “Intolerable” Tactics of Capital Defenders

January 7, 2015

HARRISBURG, PA — The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has once again labeled the behavior of the Federal Capital Defense Organization as “intolerable.” In its last opinion of the year, Commonwealth v. Eichinger, the Court noted that the claims raised by the organization, “beyond lacking merit, are patently frivolous and
deliberately incoherent.” Using unusually strong language, the Court rebuked the organization for its “predicable tactics designed merely to impede the already deliberate wheels of justice.”

“The Supreme Court’s rebuke of the Federal Capital Defense Organization’s delay tactics must be taken seriously by anyone examining Pennsylvania’s death penalty,” said PDAA President and Union County District Attorney D. Peter Johnson.

The censure from the Court came in the Montgomery County case of John Eichinger, who killed two women who had rejected his advances. He committed both murders up close, with a knife, by slitting the victims’ throats. In the second case, the victim was home with her sister and her three-year-old daughter. Eichinger stabbed the sister repeatedly, killing her too. Then he stabbed the three-year-old girl, in her neck and in the back, until she was dead as well.

After he was arrested, Eichinger made numerous incriminating statements and did not contest his guilt at trial. A jury, comprised of 12 citizens, determined a death sentence was the appropriate punishment for his brutal killings.

“The unscrupulous efforts of the federal capital defenders to delay justice in cases like Eichinger’s have been a concern of Supreme Court justices for years,” said PDAA Vice President and Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Ferman. “There is proper representation of a client and then there is outright abuse of the
system. Tax-payer funded Capital defenders should not use their position to manipulate the system.” In the past, anti-death-penalty advocates have attempted to dismiss these concerns on the ground that they were first raised by outgoing Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, who a quarter century ago served as District
Attorney in Philadelphia. With the Eichinger decision, such denials are no longer possible. The opinion gained the vote of almost every justice on the Court. They represent a majority — and therefore a binding conclusion — even after the departure of the Chief Justice.

Justice Correale F. Stevens made clear in a concurring opinion that the federally-funded lawyers do not simply represent their clients zealously; they abuse the legal system in order to create needless delay, even in cases like Eichinger’s in which there has never been the slightest question about guilt. Such litigation becomes a covert tool to achieve an unpopular policy goal that cannot be attained through proper political means. “Simply put,” said the Justice, “those who oppose the death penalty should address their concerns to the legislature. Using the court system as a way to delay, obstruct, and thus, by implication, invalidate a law passed by duly elected senators and representatives cannot be characterized as proper, zealous advocacy.”

Under Pennsylvania law, the death penalty may be imposed only under the most heinous circumstances. The defendant’s right of appeal is also part of the proper administration of justice. Every capital case is carefully weighed through at least three sets of appeals, spanning at least a decade, if not two or three decades. “Delaying an execution of sentence, even after it has survived this grueling review process, must be viewed for what it is: the pursuit of a hidden agenda of a few through the willful defiance of the binding law of Pennsylvania, as enacted by its lawmakers with the consistent support of its citizens,” Johnson concluded.