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June 01, 2015

Pennsylvania Governor Declares Moratorium on Death Penalty

On February 13, 2015, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf declared a moratorium on his state’s death penalty. The moratorium will last at least until he receives recommendations from the bipartisan Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment, which is investigating a number of issues with Pennsylvania’s capital punishment process. In his statement announcing the moratorium, Governor Wolf asserted that the suspension of executions is “in no way an expression of sympathy for the guilty on death row.” Rather, it is a chance to reexamine and fix “a flawed system that has been proven to be an endless cycle of court proceedings as well as ineffective, unjust, and expensive.”

Governor Wolf criticized the current death penalty process for being “drawn out, expensive, and painful for all involved.” The appeals that are a part of all death penalty cases often cause victims’ families to be subjected to the same tragic process again and again. Estimates also show that capital punishment had cost Pennsylvania between $315 and $600 million since 1978.

Governor Wolf emphasized that these extensive appeals are necessary. Since reinstating the death penalty in 1976, six men have been exonerated from death row in Pennsylvania. Quoting a 2003 report by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s Committee on Racial and Gender Bias in the Justice System, Governor Wolf stated that “Pennsylvania’s capital system does not operate in an evenhanded manner.” A person is more likely to be sentenced to death if he is poor or of a minority racial group, especially when the victim was white. Additionally, Governor Wolf cited a 2007 American Bar Association assessment of Pennsylvania's death-penalty implementation concluding that “the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania fails to comply or only partially complies with many of the ABA’s recommendations and that many of these shortcomings are substantial.” In light of these serious racial and class inequalities, Governor Wolf chose to suspend executions while the specialized task force further investigates these concerns and proposes solutions to them.

The moratorium was met with opposition from Republicans in the Pennsylvania legislature and the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, which called it a “ploy… to impose his personal views against the death penalty.” A few days after the announcement, the Republican-controlled House passed a resolution claiming that the moratorium “exhibits an astounding disregard for the additional and unnecessary heartache” of the families of death row prisoners’ victims. A day later, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on capital punishment. Neither of these developments is legally binding on Governor Wolf. However, the Pennsylvania District Attorney has also filed a case with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court challenging the moratorium. The Court has agreed to hear the case, though it will likely be over a year before they issue a ruling on it.

Pennsylvania currently has 186 prisoners on its death row, though it has only executed three individuals since 1976, with the last execution taking place in 1999. As executions are scheduled for the prisoners currently on death row, Governor Wolf said he will issue temporary reprieves. He has already done so twice since instituting the moratorium. House Republicans criticized these moves, claiming that reprieves should be reserved for cases where new evidence comes to light in the last minute. Meanwhile, William Hubbard, the President of the American Association, praised Governor Wolf’s decision, stating: “Wolf’s call for a suspension of executions provides the chance for Pennsylvania to pause, reflect and ensure that justice does, in fact, come first.”