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Pa. House committee hears opposing views on death penalty

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HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Less than 24 hours after the Pennsylvania House of Representatives voted to condemn Governor Tom Wolf's moratorium on the death penalty, the House Judiciary committee heard testimony from advocates for and against capital punishment in a hearing Thursday morning.

Governor Wolf said back in February the current death penalty system is ineffective. He formed a task force to look into its future and still waiting for its findings. Pennsylvania has executed three of 186 convicted killers on Death Row since the United States reinstated capital punishment in 1976, none since 1999. Nearly all people involved in Thursday's hearing agreed the current system is flawed, with much of the frustration centering on the appeals process.

"I think this has been a failed public policy," capital punishment defense attorney Marc Bookman said, advocating against the death penalty. "If we provide competent representation, we can save taxpayers a huge amount of money."

Bookman's testimony proved to be a point of contention with Rep. Bryan Barbin (D-Cambria), a democrat who voted against party lines in favor of Wednesday's House vote against the Governor.

"We should not throw it out. We should fix it," he replied to Bookman. "Correct the reasons and we pay for the costs because we don`t want people like that on the street."

Since issuing his moratorium in February, Governor Wolf has given two reprieves to Death Row inmates; Terrance Williams was to be executed in March, while Hubert Michael was given his stay of execution in May. Wolf has said he plans to issue more reprieves until the task force he assigned to investigate the current death penalty system returned with more information.

"To have the process upended after years and years of appeals as it has currently been, is something we feel is wrong," Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico said.

Thursday's hearing also featured witnesses in favor of abolishing the death penalty. Robert Dunham, who works for the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington D.C., advocated for fair use of capital punishment.

"There is no proof the death penalty is any more of a deterrent to criminals than life without parole," he said.

Dunham continued, citing studies from Texas and Minnesota which indicated, he said, that quality of life for victim's families was far greater in Minnesota where the death penalty is abolished, than Texas, which leads the nation in Death Row executions.

"The death penalty is not good for families of murder victims," he said.

"There is no evidence to indicate that is the case in Pennsylvania," victim advocate Jennifer Storm replied afterwards.

Storm, who works for the Pennsylvania Office of the Victim Advocate, quoted a survey performed by the P.O.V.A. It said 91% of victims in the state agreed with the use of the death penalty.

"In this instance, it's just one man," she said of Governor Wolf, "and his opinion standing in the way of justice for their families."