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District Attorney Stedman defends death penalty against Philadelphia DA's attack

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Stedman sues commissioners

This photo shows District Attorney Craig Stedman during a news conference in December 2018.

District Attorney Craig Stedman has joined with the state attorney general and other top prosecutors across Pennsylvania in defending the death penalty, countering the district attorney of Philadelphia, who says it violates the state constitution.

“I support the death penalty in those select, rare cases,” Stedman said in a statement, adding that his office “takes no pleasure in pursuing” a death sentence.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, a Democrat who ran on an anti-death-penalty platform, asked the state Supreme Court this week to find that the death penalty violates the state constitution’s ban on cruel punishments.

Krasner said his office’s review of the 155 death sentences imposed on Philadelphia defendants since 1978 found that black defendants and the poor have been disproportionately affected.

But the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association submitted a counter brief, saying the death penalty law meets constitutional standards and the justices should respect the Legislature’s role in passing the law.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro also said the courts should not set death penalty policy.

The district attorneys association points to a 2017 study by Penn State researchers that found no racial bias in how prosecutors seek the death penalty.

Stedman, who is a member of the state association’s 13-member executive committee, called the Penn State study “an honest, unbiased, in-depth, research-based look at the topic.”

“This is a matter that absolutely should be discussed by our legislators,” Stedman said. “But that discussion must be honest and not driven by agendas or baseless misconceptions. We want to get this right with reforms that make sense and consider facts and research.”

Pennsylvania has 140 men, including seven from Lancaster County, on death row. Gov. Tom Wolf imposed a moratorium on executions after taking office in 2015.

Three people have been executed since the state reinstituted capital punishment in 1978, the most recent in 1999. All three abandoned appeals.

During Stedman’s tenure as district attorney since 2008, his prosecutors won death sentences for three men. Stedman is currently the Republican nominee for a county judgeship this November.

Candidates differ

The candidates running to succeed Stedman as district attorney have differing opinions on the death penalty.

“I support the death penalty as a punishment which, by law, is reserved for the most heinous of crimes and the most brutal murderers, including the murder of a police officer,” Heather Adams, the GOP candidate, said in an email. “The District Attorney is duty-bound to follow and enforce the law. The Legislature has clearly spelled out instances where capital punishment may be sought.”

Hobie Crystle, the Democratic candidate, said he opposes the death penalty “in all but the very rarest circumstances. It’s hard for me to envision a circumstance where it would be just to enforce the penalty.”

Crystle said he agrees with Krasner, the Philadelphia DA, that poor and minority defendants receive “uneven and deficient” legal representation.