High court to hear arguments on legality of death penalty

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — The Pennsylvania Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Wednesday on two cases dealing with the death penalty. 

The first case involves petitioner Jermont Cox, a man convicted of murder who currently resides on death row. He invoked the King’s Brief power of the high court, asking it to decide whether the arbitrary and capricious application of the death penalty in Pennsylvania violates the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the state constitution.

Philadelphia’s district attorney wants the court to strike down the policy.

“I don’t know how you explain a nearly 80 percent failure rate and say this system is high quality,” said Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner. “To have the prosecution’s position affirmed only 28 percent is especially peculiar.”

His office filed a 300-plus page brief in July detailing a study that analyzed death sentences imposed in Pennsylvania between 1978 and 2017. The study reveals more than 90 percent of death row inmates are of color — 82 percent, specifically, are black. 

In the majority of cases, ineffective assistance of counsel, poverty, and mental challenges were major factors. The study also revealed more than 70 percent of the death penalty sentences were overturned on appeal, with 91 percent of reversed cases ending in a non-death sentence.

“What we found is that it was not the worst of the worst (who received death),” said Krasner, “but it was the poorest and the blackest and the brownest.”

The second case deals with the length of a life sentence, in the context of juvenile life without parole cases.

“It asks, what is life?” said Krasner. “Is it a life sentence when you come out very old and die the next day?”

The Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General is defending the death penalty on behalf of the commonwealth, arguing that the decision should be left up to the Legislature. 

The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, the Fraternal Order of Police, and various members of the Legislature filed amicus briefs supporting the commonwealth’s arguments.

Oral arguments begin Wednesday at Philadelphia City Hall.

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