Response to the Allegheny County DA’s announcement to seek death penalty in cases 

Robert J. Perkins and Kelvin L. Morris

In the past month alone, the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office announced that it intends to seek the death penalty in several new cases. That is a bad idea. For many reasons.

Putting aside the moral and religious questions of whether it is ever appropriate for the state to be in the business of killing its own citizens, the death penalty undermines rather than advances public safety – and is overall terrible public policy. 

Don’t take just our word for it. Look at the staggering numbers that explain why capital punishment is bad policy. 

  • According to the Pennsylvania Auditor General’s 2020 report on the death penalty, between 1978 and 2018, Pennsylvania spent over $1 billion on capital prosecutions.
  • During that same period, only 3 people in PA were actually executed. That translates to about $353 million per execution
  • No executions have been carried out in Pennsylvania in over 20 years. This means that the prospect of facing a death sentence (as opposed to life in prison without the possibility of parole) is an empty threat that does not deter would-be offenders – and thus does not advance public safety in any meaningful way. 
  • According to one estimate, on average, Pennsylvania spends $3.1 million every time the prosecution seeks the death penalty. 
  • More than half of the people who were sentenced to death in Pennsylvania later had their conviction or sentence overturned on appeal. 
  • Nationally, the data also shows that the death penalty is applied in a racially discriminatory manner. In fact, a black defendant alleged to have killed a white victim is the most likely candidate to receive a death sentence. 

Seeking capital punishment is also bad for the families of crime victims. Family members may have differing opinions on capital punishment, thus sparking intra-family conflict about whether to support the prosecution’s seeking of a death sentence. Moreover, when a defendant is sentenced to death, that triggers a lengthier appeal process that takes several decades to complete. This prevents finality and closure for crime victims. In human terms, this means that multiple generations of families are forced to periodically re-open old wounds and re-experience old traumas, all of which frustrates the healing process.  

Yet according to a recent filing in Commonwealth v. Calvin Crew, the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office initiated three capital prosecutions in the past month alone (all three involve black defendants). At least three other capital prosecutions are also pending in Allegheny County. We as taxpayers can expect to foot the estimated $3.1 million tab for each of those prosecutions – even though history shows that none of the defendants are likely to ever be executed. 

That is a colossal waste of resources that could be better applied in ways that would advance public safety. Our community has been ravaged by a spate of shootings involving mostly young men in possession of illegal guns. Why not take that $18 million and develop an initiative that focuses on stopping the senseless violence? Several million dollars could be spent on law enforcement efforts to identify and target the individuals who are most likely to be involved in violence. Another several million dollars could be spent on prevention measures such as expanded after-school and job training programs. 

In the end, we’re left this question: why doesn’t the DA try something different that might actually work rather than return to the tired old methods that history shows simply don’t work? 

Robert J. Perkins and Kelvin L. Morris write on behalf of the Allegheny Lawyers Initiative for Justice, a coalition of attorneys, investigators, and social workers. ALI is a non-partisan 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.