“If the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is going to take the irrevocable step of executing a human being, its capital sentencing system must be infallible. Pennsylvania’s system is riddled with flaws, making it error prone, expensive, and anything but infallible… If we are to continue to administer the death penalty, we must take further steps to ensure that defendants have appropriate counsel at every stage of their prosecution, that the sentence is applied fairly and proportionally, and that we eliminate the risk of executing an innocent. Anything less fails to live up to the requirements of our Constitution, and the goal of equal justice for all towards which we must continually strive.” – Governor Tom Wolf, February 13, 2015
The death penalty has been in the news a great deal lately – both locally and nationwide. Our latest post on death sentences involved the infamous Jodi Arias and her near miss with a sentence of lethal injection. Over the past month, a number of issues have arisen in Pennsylvania regarding the death penalty. On February 13, 2015, less than a month after taking office, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf granted a reprieve for Terrance Williams, a man convicted of First Degree Murder and sentenced to death in 1984. Wolf’s predecessor, Tom Corbett, signed Williams’ death warrant, meaning that lethal injection was imminent until Governor Wolf intervened. In a statement, the Governor stated it was not because of his sympathy for the convicted that he issued the moratorium, but because the Pennsylvania capital punishment system “has significant and widely recognized defects.” Citing “an unending cycle of death warrants and appeals”, the financial drain on taxpayers, the emotional stress on victims’ families, racial and socioeconomic bias of the system and the irreversible nature of the punishment itself, Governor Wolf declared that no executions will be carried out in Pennsylvania until he has received and reviewed a report by the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment and addressed its recommendations.
As with all public debates on the death penalty, there has been some outrage over the moratorium, with many questioning the Governor’s power to even impose such a restriction. On March 5, 2015, two men robbed a Philadelphia video game store, murdering Police Officer Robert Wilson. Certainly, murdering an officer in the course of a robbery meets the “aggravating circumstances” required to impose a death sentence [Link to Jodi Arias blog for information on aggravating circumstances]. Will Governor Wolf’s moratorium spare Officer Wilson’s murders from lethal injection?
Owing to shortages in the drugs used for lethal injection, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (“DOC”) changed state execution procedures, so that three drugs, instead of two, would be used to carry out death sentences. On March 11, 2015, a Court in Harrisburg heard arguments on behalf of five Pennsylvania inmates on death row, who challenged the DOC’s authority to change death penalty procedures without legislative approval. For the time being, owing to the Governor’s freeze on capital punishment, the five complainants against the DOC have nothing to worry about.
Pennsylvania Death Penalty in Numbers:
1976 – Year Pennsylvania re-instated the death penalty after 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision of Furman v. Georgia.
1999 – Year of most recent execution in Pennsylvania
434 – Number of death warrants signed by Pennsylvania governors since penalty was reinstated
186 – Number of inmates currently on death row in Pennsylvania
3 – Number of inmates put to death since 1976
6 – Number of people on death row who were found to be innocent since 1976
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