Rothman Proposal Would Make Death Penalty Likelier for Killings at Pennsylvania Schools, Certain Other Settings

Pennsylvania State Representative Greg Rothman (R-Camp Hill) last week announced he intends to introduce a measure allowing courts to impose the death penalty for killings based on their taking place in certain settings including schools. 

Currently, a convict can receive a death sentence in the Keystone State if a court finds he or she committed a murder to which at least one of 18 statutorily defined “aggravating circumstances” and no “mitigating circumstances” apply. Aggravating circumstances include the victim having served as a police officer or other first responder, the defendant having committed the killing for hire or the killer having held the victim hostage. Mitigating circumstances include the perpetrator having no prior criminal history or the killer having committed his or her crime under “extreme duress.”

Rothman’s bill would add a 19th aggravating circumstance: “The defendant committed the killing on the premises of an elementary or secondary school, college, place of worship, professional sports facility or government office.” 

The representative introduced a similar measure in the previous session, though it did not get a vote in the House Judiciary Committee. He cited recent mass shootings at schools as the impetus for reintroducing his proposal.

“We are all familiar with the recent tragic events in Uvalde, Texas and Buffalo, New York, and let us not forget the tragic event in the Amish Community of Lancaster County [in 2006],” Rothman wrote in a memorandum on his bill. “It is with reasons like this in mind that I will be reintroducing this legislation.”

While arguing for expanding the number of scenarios under which a convict could be executed, the legislator observed that the list of mitigating circumstances that could prevent a Pennsylvania defendant from getting a death sentence is essentially “unlimited.” That’s because the law states “any other evidence of mitigation concerning the character and record of the defendant and the circumstances of his offense” could suffice to bar such a punishment. 

As a result of both the broad legal definition of mitigating circumstances and Governor Tom Wolf’s (D) unwillingness to sign any execution warrants, the commonwealth rarely puts any defendants to death. Only three executions have taken place since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, the most recent being performed on rapist, kidnapper and murderer Gary Heidnik in 1999.

Rothman’s measure would take effect two months after its enactment.

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Bradley Vasoli is managing editor of The Pennsylvania Daily Star. Follow Brad on Twitter at @BVasoli. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Greg Rothman” by PA State Rep. Greg Rothman. Background Photo “Pennsylvania State Capitol” by Kumar Appaiah. CC BY-SA 2.0.

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