Death penalty decision won’t hinge on PA case

If the U.S. Supreme Court decides on the constitutionality of capital punishment, it won’t be because of Shonda Walter.

The court on Monday declined to hear the Pennsylvania woman's petition, which asked the justices to ban the death penalty nationwide as cruel and unusual punishment.

Walter was sentenced to die in Pennsylvania in 2005 after killing James Sementelli, her elderly neighbor in Lock Haven.

As The New York Times noted in a recent editorial, the death sentence was upheld on appeal in Pennsylvania, even though Walter had “inexcusably bad representation,” a reference to her appointed lawyer putting on no defense on her behalf.

The U.S. Supreme Court has weighed in on the death penalty many times in the past. But it had always dealt with specific issues, including whether it should apply to minors or people with intellectual disabilities, according to the Times. Both categories of offenders are now exempt from the death penalty.

Walter’s petition was not asking for any exemption. She wanted them to look at capital punishment as a whole. Two Supreme Court justices previously signaled that they wanted just that opportunity.

According to the Marshall Project:

Last June, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer suggested that the death penalty might be close to its ultimate demise. “Rather than try to patch up the death penalty’s legal wounds one at a time,” he wrote in a dissent to Glossip v. Gross, to which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg added her name, “I would ask for a full briefing on a more basic question: whether the death penalty violates the Constitution.”

After the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld Walter’s sentence in March 2009, then-Gov. Ed Rendell signed a death warrant. She was scheduled to die in April 22, 2010.

The date came and went.

Pennsylvania has only executed three inmates in the past 40 years. Last February, Gov. Tom Wolf issued a moratorium on the death penalty, which was promptly challenged by Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams.

In December, the state Supreme Court ruled that Wolf had the authority to issue reprieves to inmates, even if he gave no specific end date, according to the Associated Press.

Wolf said the reprieves would stand until a legislative report on the death penalty was delivered, presumably in 2016.

As the Times editorial notes, most Americans support the death penalty, though numbers have dwindled to about 60 percent of citizens in support, down from 80 percent in the 1990s. Nineteen states do not have the death penalty, according to the Times, and nearly all recent executions have been conducted in Texas, Georgia and Missouri.

Executions resumed in the United States in 1976, following a four-year ban by the Supreme Court.

Any future ban could depend on a single justice.

From the Marshall Project:

The key swing vote in all of this, as in much else, is Justice Anthony Kennedy. In the past, he has written opinions striking down both the death penalty and life without parole sentences for juveniles — in both cases he cited “international opinion,” giving hope to death penalty abolitionists — but he has never given an unambiguous sign of his views on capital punishment as a whole.

Though Walter’s petition has failed, other challenges before the Supreme Court are expected.

Reach Jeffrey Benzing at 412-315-0265 or at jbenzing@publicsource.org. Follow him on Twitter @jabenzing.