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Pennsylvania Death Penalty Debate

Executions should be stopped in Pennsylvania until the state can study how race affects death penalty sentences, a committee appointed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said in a report released Tuesday.

The 550-page report by the Committee on Racial and Gender Bias in the Justice System calls on Gov. Ed Rendell and the court to order the moratorium.

Blacks make up 62 percent of Pennsylvania's 242 death row inmates but only 10 percent of the state's general population. Since October 1999, the committee has studied the impact of race, ethnicity and gender issues in the courts.

"We acted beyond our role. We realized that the recommended changes did not lie solely within the courts," said Nicholas Cafardi, dean of Duquesne University's School of Law and the committee chairman.

The report addressed several issues, including gender bias in jury selection, a lack of diversity in jury pools and the courts' treatment of sexual assault victims. It also said many defense attorneys in death penalty cases need better pay and standardized training.

In calling for a moratorium, the report cited studies of Philadelphia's courts saying black defendants are more likely to be sentenced to death.

Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which supports the death penalty, said those studies were written by researchers biased against capital punishment. "The system is generally fair. It's been studied, reformed and tinkered with for 30 years now," he said.

Rendell, a former Philadelphia prosecutor and mayor, supports the death penalty, but has said he would review the issue if warranted. A spokesman for Rendell, who was giving his first budget address to the Legislature, did not return calls Tuesday.

Cafardi said it will be up to two new task forces established by the Supreme Court to find ways to implement the committee's recommendations, including the collection of data on capital litigation.

There have been calls for moratoriums on the death penalty across the nation, but, until recently, only two had been put in place. One by former Illinois Gov. George Ryan remains in effect. Maryland's new governor, Robert Ehrlich, lifted one there when he took office in January.

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, Pennsylvania has executed three people. Leon Moser and Keith Zettlemoyer were executed in 1995. Philadelphia torture-killer Gary Heidnik was put to death in 1999.

By Allison Schlesinger

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