High Court To Hear Arguments Over Executions Moratorium

Sep 9, 2015

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court will hear arguments in Philadelphia over whether Gov. Tom Wolf is legally allowed to issue reprieves to convicted inmates sentenced to die.
Credit Aapo Haapanen / Flickr

  A legal battle over Gov. Tom Wolf’s seven-month death penalty moratorium lands in the state’s Supreme Court on Thursday.

The court’s ruling could disrupt Wolf’s plans to continue issuing reprieves to death row inmates, at least until a state task force finishes studying capital punishment in Pennsylvania. 

The governor’s first reprieve came in February for inmate Terrance Williams, sentenced to death for killing a man in 1984. The Philadelphia District Attorney’s office challenged the reprieve, saying it can’t be an open-ended ruling absent specific consideration of the inmate. The governor countered that his actions are supported by the constitution and history.

Bruce Ledewitz, a professor at Duquesne University School of Law, has said case law requires a reprieve to be for a definite time and purpose.

“The governor defined the purpose – to wait,” said Ledewitz. “The question is whether the reprieve has something to do with the particular prisoner who gets the reprieve.”

In June, Wolf postponed the death of a second inmate, Hubert Lester Michael, who was convicted in 1993 of raping and killing a 16-year-old girl. He never contested his guilt or the judgment.

The high court will hear oral arguments in Philadelphia.