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Gov. Wolf Suspends Death Penalty in Pennsylvania

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Governor Tom Wolf has announced a moratorium on the death penalty, calling the state’s capital sentencing system “riddled with flaws.”

“The only certainty in the current system is that the process will be drawn out, expensive, and painful for all involved,” said Wolf in a written statement released Friday.

The moratorium will remain in effect until Wolf has reviewed the forthcoming report of the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Commission on Capital Punishment.

Wolf pointed to studies that flagged shortcomings in the administration of the death penalty in Pennsylvania. The state’s Supreme Court and the American Bar Association have found racial disparities on death row and inadequate protections for the innocent and poor defendants. He also cited the as-yet unknown costliness of what he called an “unending cycle of death warrants and appeals.”

The governor said he’ll grant reprieves in each scheduled execution until his concerns are addressed. A legislative task force is studying capital punishment in Pennsylvania and plans to share recommendations this year.

Law enforcement groups denounced the move.

“It’s a real slap in the face to the victims’ families in these cases, the police who have worked so hard to solve these crimes and bring these worst of the worst killers to justice,” said Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico. 

In the state Legislature, Democrats were quick to commend the governor.  Senator Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery) called the moratorium long overdue.  Leach, a member of the capital punishment task force, says  he will introduce legislation to abolish the death penalty.

But most Republican leaders criticized Wolf for making a unilateral move without their input. "The Governor continues to emphasize transparency in his administration, while at the same time bypassing the legislative system that is in place which would allow for public comment on an issue such as this,” said Republican Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman in a written statement.

However, reaction wasn’t entirely partisan. State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R-Montgomery), who co-chairs the task force looking into the death penalty, said it’s fitting there’s a moratorium while the issue is still under scrutiny.

“The other reason why we need it is that we have had some DNA exonerations,” said Greenleaf. “At least one of those individuals was on death row.”

Kathleen Lucas, director of the York County-based Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said the moratorium is a step toward a fairer justice system.

“What’s happening is that the death penalty system doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do,” Lucas said. “It’s not a deterrent -- so it doesn’t achieve its penological intent -- and it’s ridiculously expensive.”

In nearly 40 years, Pennsylvania governors have signed more than 400 death warrants, but just three people, all of whom voluntarily gave up their appeals, have been executed.

32 states authorize the death penalty, a figure that has decreased in recent years as some states have abolished capital punishment in favor of life imprisonment sentences.

The governor had pledged his support for a moratorium during the Democratic gubernatorial primary. “Well, we can’t say we are surprised he is checking off another box on his list of commitments to his political supporters," said House Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny)

“His death penalty moratorium is, in reality, a political statement without public discourse or input."


 Marsico added that the state prosecutors association could fight Wolf’s reprieves for those already who face execution warrants.

“I expect this will go to the courts soon,” said Marsico.

Pennsylvania's Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf announced Friday that he was imposing a moratorium on the death penalty. According to a release from the governor's office

"Today's action comes after significant consideration and reflection," said Wolf in the release. "This moratorium is in no way an expression of sympathy for the guilty on death row, all of whom have been convicted of committing heinous crimes. This decision is based on a flawed system that has been proven to be an endless cycle of court proceedings as well as ineffective, unjust, and expensive." 

The release goes on to quote the governor as saying "since the reinstatement of the death penalty, 150 people have been exonerated from death row nationwide, including six men in Pennsylvania."

Friday Wolf granted a temporary reprieve to inmate Terrance Williams, who was scheduled to be executed on March 4. The release said the conditions and confinement will not change for death row inmates.

Kevin Gavin is the host of WESA's news interview program "The Confluence." He is a native Pittsburgher and served as news director for 90.5 WDUQ for 34 years. Since the sale of the radio station by Duquesne University to Pittsburgh EPM, Inc. (now Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Corp.), he served as Executive Producer of Special News Projects prior to being named as host of "The Confluence" five years ago. kgavin@wesa.fm
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