Governor places moratorium on death penalty in Pennsylvania
February 13, 2015 10:12 PM
Gov. Tom Wolf
By Karen Langley and Kate Giammarise / Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau
HARRISBURG -- Gov. Tom Wolf on Friday announced a moratorium on the death penalty in Pennsylvania, saying that questions about the “fundamental fairness” of capital punishment had persuaded him to halt the practice until an advisory committee has presented its findings.
Pennsylvania has not put a prisoner to death since 1999, but some observers said they believed particular cases could have been nearing the point of an execution occurring.
Mr. Wolf said during his campaign for governor that he supported a moratorium on executions. In a memorandum Friday explaining the decision, he cited the exoneration of death-row inmates, the disproportionate sentencing of members of racial minorities and the cost of the sometimes-decades-long rounds of appeals.
“The unending cycle of death warrants and appeals diverts resources from the judicial system and forces the families and loved ones of victims to relive their tragedies each time a new round of warrants and appeals commences,” Mr. Wolf said. “The only certainty in the current system is that the process will be drawn out, expensive and painful for all involved.”
In a first step, Mr. Wolf granted a temporary reprieve to inmate Terrance Williams, convicted of murder, who was scheduled to be executed March 4.
Republican leaders of the House and Senate criticized the move, as did the associations of Pennsylvania district attorneys and state troopers. The District Attorneys Association said the governor’s moratorium “is a misuse of his power and ignores the law.”
"Make no mistake, this action is not about waiting for a study -- it's about the governor ignoring duly-enacted law and imposing his personal views against the death penalty," the prosecutors said in a statement.
The district attorneys are considering legal action to challenge the moratorium, said Ed Marsico, the Dauphin County district attorney. He said he believes some executions -- such as that of Hubert Michael, whose execution was put on hold last year because of problems obtaining lethal injection drugs, and that of Williams -- could have been close at hand.
The governor’s office distributed a statement from former U.S. circuit court Judge Timothy K. Lewis, who noted that he was appointed to the bench by a Republican president. In his statement, Judge Lewis said he concluded that state law requires the governor to issue execution warrants, but that he is given “wide discretion” to grant reprieves.
“I concluded that if a governor believed it would be in the interests of the Commonwealth to issue a moratorium by granting reprieves for the purpose of studying the fairness and effectiveness of the administration of the death penalty, this would be a proper exercise of his or her authority under the Pennsylvania Constitution,” Judge Lewis said in the statement.
The advisory committee Mr. Wolf cited was created by the Senate in 2011. Its report was due in December 2013, but the collection of extensive information from the state’s courts and district attorneys prolonged the project, said Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, who sponsored the resolution creating the committee. Mr. Greenleaf said he expects the report to be completed in the first half of 2015.
Three women and 183 men are on death row in Pennsylvania, according to a Department of Corrections list updated Feb. 2. Nine of the state's death row inmates are from Allegheny County.
They include Richard Baumhammers, who was convicted of killing five people and paralyzing a sixth, who later died, in a racially motivated rampage in 2000, and Richard Poplawski, who was sentenced to death for the 2009 murder of three Pittsburgh police officers.
The two men who have been on death row the longest, John Lesko and Michael Travaglia, known as the "Kill for Thrill" killers, were first sentenced to death in 1981.
Thirty-two states have a death penalty law still on the books, while 18 states have ended the punishment, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Six states have abolished capital punishment since 2007, because of problems such as its expense, the time from sentencing to execution becoming more lengthy, a number of high-profile exonerations of death row inmates and logistical problems with obtaining drugs because of sanctions by European manufacturers.
“There's clearly a trend away from the death penalty,” said Richard Dieter, the center's executive director.
Caroline Roberto, a Pittsburgh attorney who has represented defendants in capital cases, said Pennsylvania’s system is particularly flawed because, unlike in most states, counties rather than the state are responsible for funding the defense. The result, she said, is that defense attorneys have too few resources at trial.
“Until there is a willingness on the part of politicians and people in power to fund this properly, I just don’t see how it can be fixed,” she said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, along with Bishop David Zubik of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee and the Council on American-Islamic Relations voiced support for Mr. Wolf’s decision.
The ACLU has pending federal litigation -- along with several media outlets, including the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette -- to find out the source of the lethal injection drugs Pennsylvania would be using to carry out any upcoming injections.
Karen Langley: firstname.lastname@example.org, 717-787-2141 or on Twitter @karen_langley. Kate Giammarise: email@example.com or 717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.
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