Frank Ryan, the Republican state representative serving the 101st Legislative District in Lebanon County, wants to do away with the death penalty in Pennsylvania.
“According to the Department of Corrections, there are currently 117 individuals on death row in Pennsylvania,” he wrote in the memo. “A recent study found that since Pennsylvania enacted the death penalty in 1978, it has cost the state roughly $816 million dollars more than the cost of life without parole.”
However, he noted, during that time only three people have been executed in the Commonwealth, all of whom had waived their rights of appeal and asked for their executions to proceed.
“In addition to its overwhelming cost, human error inherent in the criminal justice with respect to the death penalty has produced numerous unjust and tragic results,” Ryan wrote. “Specifically, six individuals who had been sentenced to death in Pennsylvania were later exonerated. In 2015, the governor placed a moratorium on all executions… Currently, Pennsylvania is the only northeastern state that still authorizes the use of the death penalty. Simply put, it is time that Pennsylvania joins its neighboring states and puts an end to this practice by repealing the death penalty.”
Ryan represents Cornwall, Lebanon, Mount Gretna, Palmyra, and North Cornwall, North Londonderry, South Annville, South Londonderry and West Cornwall townships.
The bill is likely to have some bipartisan support, given that Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, enacted a moratorium on executions in 2015. Ryan noted that he has been working on the bill’s language with state Rep. Christopher Rabb, a Democrat serving the 200th district in Philadelphia.
Ryan noted the irony when he admitted that he “absolutely” supported the governor’s moratorium.
In fact, Ryan said he is frustrated that party lines and personal attacks among legislators could derail the bill, which he and Rabb previously tried to get to the Capitol floor in 2020.
“We really want to get this thing done,” he said. “Sometimes, personalities have sidetracked the bill in the past.”
Unlike some death penalty opponents elsewhere in the United States, Ryan said he doesn’t favor its repeal for racial reasons.
“I believe the death penalty adversely affects those who are in poverty,” he explained. “A lot of people want to make it a black and white issue, but… I think it’s more an issue of the poor not getting justice.”
Ryan also noted that he is attaching a corollary to the bill that would bar those who are convicted of capital crimes and would be eligible for the death penalty from qualifying for humanitarian release.
According to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons, “humanitarian release” is defined as making an inmate eligible for immediate early release on grounds of “particularly extraordinary or compelling circumstances which could not reasonably have been foreseen by the court at the time of sentencing,” such as significant health issues.
“I do not believe in humanitarian release in death penalty type crimes,” Ryan said. “There are some crimes that are so heinous, they should never be eligible for parole.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Ryan said he also opposes minimum sentences, although he quickly added that he wants “no mercy for child sex trafficking. … You could throw away the key on that one, I wouldn’t care.”
Lebanon County District Attorney Pier Hess Graf did not immediately respond to a request for comment on how the bill would affect her work as the county’s top prosecutor. Ryan said he had discussed the measure with the late state Senator Dave Arnold, who was Graf’s predecessor as district attorney, and he hopes to talk about it with Graf and local judges soon.
Bill gets mixed support from local reps
It remains to be seen how much favor the bill will find among Ryan’s legislative peers. In Lebanon County, however, there’s an even split on the issue. State Rep. Russ Diamond, a Republican representing the 102nd district, said he supports the measure.
“As someone who is 100% pro-life, I am philosophically opposed to the death penalty,” he said in an email to LebTown.
Diamond represents Cleona, Jonestown, Myerstown, Richland and Annville boroughs, and Bethel, Heidelberg, Jackson, Millcreek, North Lebanon, South Lebanon, Swatara, Union and West Lebanon townships.
However, state Rep. Susan C. Helm, a Republican representing the 104th District, disagrees.
“I did not support the governor’s 2015 moratorium on executions,” she said in an email. “And, although I realize juries are not immune to human error, I do not support repealing the death penalty in Pennsylvania, as Rep. Ryan’s bill would do.
“I believe the death penalty is an effective deterrent of crime—the more severe the consequence for such heinous crimes, the lower the likelihood that someone would commit one,” Helm explained. “However, on the other side of the same coin, I believe we should be exploring avenues to improve the system by which death sentences are given and carried out. Juries are comprised of humans, and humans are imperfect. We need to somehow find a perfect system in which no false convictions or improper sentences are handed down.”
Helm’s district lies largely in Dauphin County but includes East Hanover and North Annville townships in Lebanon County.
Ryan said he has seen support building for the measure among members of both parties, and cosponsors are already signing onto the bill.
“We’re trying to resolve some differences in language,” he said. “We’ve had some fairly good, open discussions.”
State Rep. Rob Kauffman, a Republican serving the 89th district in Franklin County, chairs the House Judiciary Committee and said he would “entertain a hearing” to discuss the bill further, Ryan said.
That probably won’t happen until September or October, he said. He hopes in the meantime to get legislators talking across the aisle.
“Both caucuses have become a little more polarized than is probably good,” Ryan said. “Unfortunately, you can derail a piece of legislation with a wrongly placed comment… You might feel better for the next 30 seconds, but the damage done to the relationships is problematic.”
A brief history of executions in PA
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, a national nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., to serve the media and general public with analysis and information on issues concerning capital punishment, Pennsylvania began carrying out executions—in the form of public hangings—in the early 1600s. In 1834, Pennsylvania became the first state in the U.S. to outlaw public executions and move the gallows to county prisons.
In 1913, DPIC says, “the state’s capital punishment statute was amended to bring executions under the administration of the state rather than individual counties, and also changed the method of execution to electrocution.” The state in 1990 changed its method of execution to lethal injection.
The website notes that, prior to 1976, Pennsylvania carried out 1,040 executions—the third highest number of any state. In the years since, the DPIC states, the population of Pennsylvania’s death row was for more than 20 years the fourth largest in the nation.
The Reading Eagle reported in 2016 that, from the time Pennsylvania enacted its current death penalty statute in 1978 through 2015, Pennsylvania had sentenced 408 prisoners to death, of whom 169 were subsequently resentenced to life in prison, 16 were resentenced to brief terms, and six were exonerated. Only three convicts were executed in that period; the rest, according to the Eagle report, either remained on death row at the time of publication or had died in prison.
The number of people on death row in the commonwealth “has declined steadily in size from 246 in October 2001 to 175 in July 2016, without any executions, primarily as a result of death sentences being overturned in the courts and defendants being resentenced to life or less or acquitted,” the DPIC states.
Feb. 13, 2015, Gov. Wolf enacted a moratorium on executions, “citing concerns about innocence, racial bias, and the death penalty’s effects on victims’ families,” the DPIC explains.
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