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Death Penalty Challenged by Philadelphia Public Defenders

Philadelphia's Public Defenders, Bar Association and Institutional Law Project Committee challenged the constitutionality of Pennsylvania's death penalty this October (1994), filing legal challenges in 78 murder cases including their clients.

The Defender Association of Philadelphia contends the law is "broadly drafted" and the state supreme court has "expansively interpreted" it, leaving more than 95 percent of murder defendants subject to a possible death sentence.

A 78 page petition to be filed with trial judges seeks to block, the death penalty on the basis that the state law violates provisions in the U.S. and Pennsylvania constitutions prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment and requiring due process of law.

After surveying 449 murder cases awaiting trial in July of 1994, Assistant Defender David Zuckerman found that 86.9 percent had at least one "aggravating factor" that would allow the District Attorney's office to seek the death penalty. The DA's offices had filed a notice of intent to seek the death penalty in 94.2 percent of those cases.

While, if successful, the challenges would invalidate the statutory scheme underlying the death penalty statewide, the figures cited by the Defenders were gathered only in Philadelphia.

Bradley Bridge of the PA Bar Association's committee on capital punishment said the crux of the argument is that there is no way for the statute to be fairly enforced, and said that Philadelphia's experience was typical. Bridge said that under the statute as presently constituted, virtually any defendant may be deemed to have aggravating circumstances warranting capital prosecution. The Defender's office said in their brief, "The combination of these factors has resulted in a statute that exposes over 95 percent of those charged with murder to the death penalty." There is no longer a legal distinction between those murder defendants who receive the death sentence and those who don't, the Defender's office said.

Philadelphia District Attorney, Lynne M. Abraham, said the law requires prosecutors to give defense lawyers early notice of intent to seek the death penalty-, but the office ultimately seeks it in only some of the cases.

Zuckerman said, "Our study is not an indictment of the charging practices of the Philadelphia District Attorney. It's an indictment of the statute, which doesn't do what it was designed to do: narrow the class of persons subject to the death penalty."

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