A Call To Action

It is impossible to overestimate the impact of the Pope’s visit on the United States, and the way he has inspired all of us who hope and work for repeal of the death penalty. His words to Congress will not soon be forgotten:

The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us. The Golden Rule reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development. This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes. Recently my brother bishops here in the United States renewed their call for the abolition of the death penalty. Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.

And his words to the inmates at the Curran Fromhold Correctional Facility, while not directed at the death penalty, carried a message irreconcilable with the ultimate punishment:

This time in your life can only have one purpose: to give you a hand in getting back on the right road, to give you a hand to help you rejoin society. All of us are part of that effort, all of us are invited to encourage, help and enable your rehabilitation. A rehabilitation which everyone seeks and desires: inmates and their families, correctional authorities, social and educational programs. A rehabilitation which benefits and elevates the morale of the entire community.

The Pope’s visit came only one day after Justice Scalia, at a small college in Memphis, Tennessee, remarked that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the United States Supreme Court found the death penalty unconstitutional. Scalia, in turn, was referencing the dissent by Justice Breyer and Ginsburg in the Glossip opinion only a few months earlier. It is hard not to hear the dominoes falling, one by one, on capital punishment.

The Curran Fromhold speech, like every event on the Pope’s itinerary, was well attended by civic leaders. Among the attendees was Seth Williams, the District Attorney of Philadelphia, one of a rapidly diminishing number of prosecutors in the entire United States still regularly seeking the death penalty and, like Justice Scalia, a Catholic. Was he listening to the Pope’s message? Judging by his tweets – “Powerful words from ‪@Pontifex redemption, forgiveness, mercy, justice, hope and love. ‪#PopeInPhilly” – it sounds like he was. If so, is he willing to forego the punishment that a huge majority of the civilized world has already put behind it? Only time will tell.

When the Pope spoke to the inmates at Curran Fromhold, he recognized that for them “it is a difficult time, one full of struggles.” For us, too. Change never comes easy personally or politically; and if we want to achieve the goal of a more humane criminal justice system, we must struggle to be heard. The Pope’s visit is nothing less than a call to action.

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It’s Always Something

As one of our greatest and saddest comedians liked to say, it’s always something. A quick recap of the scandals in the Pennsylvania criminal justice system over the last year shows us just how astute Gilda Radner really was.

For starters, the racist, misogynistic, pornographic email scandal doesn’t seem anywhere near its endpoint. Having already claimed former Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery – who resigned not only in the wake of email accusations but also allegations of ticket fixing and huge consultation fees given his wife – the scandal then proceeded to out former deputy attorney generals Frank Fina, Marc Costanza and Patrick Blessington. Each of them had been hired by Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams after their involvement with said emails, but Williams decided not to fire them. Bravely announcing his decision late Friday afternoon before Labor Day, Williams determined that “sensitivity training” might be the better course for his wayward lawyers.

Unfortunately, improper emails are not the only problem confronting our top law enforcement officials. The Philadelphia Inquirer has reported that Mr. Williams himself is being investigated by a federal grand jury for improper campaign spending – subpoenas have been issued to his political action committee, and the investigation is said to be a joint FBI/IRS effort.

But Williams’ problems pale in comparison to his archrival, Kathleen Kane, who as of this writing is still the Attorney General of Pennsylvania. In August, she was charged with illegally leaking information to the news media about grand jury proceedings in a 2014 case, then lying about it. That case involved former state prosecutors with whom she was feuding, namely the former deputy attorney generals now working for Seth Williams. But the tangled web doesn’t stop there – yesterday the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, acting unanimously at the behest of the Disciplinary Board, suspended Kane’s law license. Kane, seizing on the thin lifeline that she has not been ordered removed from office, insists that she will remain the Attorney General and that she is the victim of a vendetta by an “old boys’ network” of political and legal rivals. While this may or may not be true, she is now an attorney general who cannot sign legal documents, provide legal advice, or act in a legal capacity. Her next step, apparently, will be to release even more of the damning emails to prove the conspiracy she claims has been hatched against her.

None of this should give us confidence that law enforcement decisions are being made with the level of calm deliberation the public deserves. But there is one thing we can always count on – just as patriotism is the last vestige of a scoundrel, so is the urge to execute a citizen the last vestige of a prosecutor in trouble. The ink was barely dry on Governor Wolf’s declaration of a moratorium when Seth Williams and Kathleen Kane attacked it as an outrageous usurpation of justice. Of course, it is no such thing – given the number of well-documented death penalty reversals and exonerations, the atrocious lawyering and thinness of resources, the procedural carousel that is unfair to victims and defendants alike, the Governor’s decision was consummately reasonable and thoughtful.

The decision about capital punishment is the most serious one a law enforcement officer can make. We should expect a lot more from the elected officials who make them.