Sentence Fragments | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Sentence Fragments

A Supreme Court case shows fault lines in Pa.'s death penalty

Is justice best served by keeping juries ignorant of the law? So far, Pennsylvania's prosecutors, and most of its judges, are saying yes.


Or so it seems from the strange history of Rompilla vs. Horn, a Pennsylvania death-penalty appeal currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.


This isn't a sob story about the criminal making the appeal, Ronald Rompilla. It's hard to sympathize with a man who stabbed his victim to death and set him on fire, as Rompilla did to James Scanlon in an Allentown bar 17 years ago. This isn't about whether Ronald Rompilla broke the law. It's about whether Pennsylvania juries should be told what the law is.


Rompilla's jury wasn't. Early in its deliberations, jurors asked the judge: "If a life sentence is imposed, is there any possibility of the defendant ever being paroled?"


The law says the answer to that question is "no." In Pennsylvania, a life sentence offers no chance of parole. But the law also says that's none of the jury's business. As a 1951 Pennsylvania case, Commonwealth vs. Johnson, put it, "whether the defendant pardoned or have his sentence commuted is no concern of theirs."


The problem, as one of Rompilla's attorneys warned the judge, is that "a lot of people think that if you get a life sentence, you're out in five years or three years."


Judge David Mellenberg's response, according to court transcripts: "I can't stop that." Whether jurors understand the sentences they dole out, apparently, is no concern of a judge. "I can't answer that question," Mellenberg told the jury.


Such instructions are typical. They're also "extremely unjust," says Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz, a death-penalty opponent. Juries, he said, fear a life sentence will parole a criminal back on the streets, so they give him death instead. "I've had cases where juries have agonized for hours, and then they ask whether a life sentence means parole. The judge won't tell them, and they come back with a death sentence 10 minutes later."


 Among states that offer life without parole, Pennsylvania is nearly alone in not telling jurors the "without parole" part. Many appeals-court judges, including some who upheld Rompilla's conviction, seem uncomfortable with that. As state Supreme Court Justice John Flaherty wrote, "There can be no harm in instructing juries that [a defendant] would be [by law] ineligible for parole if sentenced to life in prison."


Yet Rompilla has lost every appeal so far. Judges may agree jurors should know "life means life," but they haven't overturned the law keeping juries in the dark. Why not?


Partly for practical reasons, says Kent Scheidegger of the California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. If a judge says "life means life," Scheidegger says, prosecutors will demand he explain that life sentences can be commuted by the governor in some cases. "You'd end up teaching juries a whole law-school course," says Scheidegger. "Where do you stop?"


That, says Ledewitz, is the other question prosecutors and judges are afraid to answer. "There are fictions in law, assumptions everyone knows aren't true," he observes. "One is that juries can be instructed not to think about things everybody thinks about."


For example, a 1994 US Supreme Court ruling held that jurors must be told a "life sentence means life" if a defendant's potential "future dangerousness" becomes an issue at trial. Pennsylvania judges apply that rule only when prosecutors specifically allege a defendant might strike again. But isn't the whole idea of the death penalty that the condemned can't harm anyone else? Don't all jurors worry about what accused murderers might do someday? If so, shouldn't they all be told "life means life"?


Once you do that, Ledewitz says, "You put a lot of things in question." Since jurors shouldn't consider such things, he says, the law assumes they don't. If you drop that assumption, you're left contending with a lot of other issues that juries shouldn't think about, but probably do. Do they base verdicts on a defendant's likeability or race? When instructed to "disregard that last statement," do they really disregard it?


If Ronald Rompilla dies, it will surely be for his crimes. But he may also die from court-administered ignorance: a system that chooses not to confront jurors' myths and biases of "turnstile justice" head-on...because doing so might reveal larger injustices.


Since justice is blind, in other words, we all have to poke our eyes out.

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