Death penalty and race at issue

A bill that would enable defendants to call for hearings on whether race factored into Death Row sentences reached the state House Judiciary Committee this week. Though odds are against it even reaching a committee vote, sponsor Rep. Rob Matzie is undeterred.

“I would consider even having a hearing a success, to at least get the issue on the record,” said Matzie, a first-term representative from Allegheny County who noted that this isn’t a “first step to get rid of the death penalty.”

Frequently mentioned were 2007 American Bar Association findings that black defendants in Philadelphia were sentenced to death at a “significantly higher rate” than non-blacks. Asked about the progress (or lack thereof), Dave Kenyon of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty said he doesn’t “think it’s dead in the water. Well-thought-out laws should take time.”

Matzie hopes to return the issue to Judiciary for an informational roundtable hearing on the issue in September.

“Rep. Ron Waters of Philadelphia said it best at the hearing: ‘If it’s clear you have the right person, I don’t have a problem with the death penalty in some cases,’” Matzie said. “But if we can show that race is playing a role, it’s our job as policy makers to take a look. There are members on both sides in the Senate who think this is an intriguing piece of legislation.”

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