In February, Governor Tom Wolf called for a moratorium on executions, pending the outcome of a statewide study of the death penalty in Pennsylvania. Governor Wolf’s policy is now the topic of a heated debate that was heard earlier this month in front of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Philadelphia.
Terrance Williams, convicted of murder in 1984, was the first inmate who was granted a reprieve under Governor Wolf’s moratorium last spring. In response, many Pennsylvania prosecutors questioned Wolf’s power to halt all executions. Seth Williams, the District Attorney’s for the City of Philadelphia, filed a challenge accusing Governor Wolf of overstepping his authority.
Although Pennsylvania has not executed a prisoner since 1999, three inmates have been issued execution dates and subsequent reprieves since Wolf announced the moratorium. Wolf stated he would grant a reprieve in each case in which an execution was scheduled, “until this commission has produced its recommendation and all concerns are addressed satisfactorily.”
Wolf is referring to the work of the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Commission on Capital Punishment, which was created by the legislature in 2011 and was originally set to be released by the end of 2013. Seth Williams and other prosecutors have criticized the likelihood of the report being completed any time soon, let alone by the beginning of 2016.
During the hearing, Justice questioned whether Wolf’s policy is more of a moratorium or merely a series of individual reprieves. Wolf’s attorneys contend he has every right to continue his action, claiming, “he can grant temporary reprieves without having to explain his reasons.”
Lawyers representing the prosecutors, however, say that Wolf is improperly tying the reprieves to a report that may never be fully addressed.
With this week’s visit of the Pope to Pennsylvania, many are wondering if this issue will be thrust into the spotlight once again. In March, the Pope remarked, “the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed.”
Despite the value of the Pope’s visit, many hopes are resting on the outcome of the report, which will include analysis of extensive amounts of data about capital cases and cases that were eligible for the death penalty but where a plea deal was reached or no death notice was filed.
Eleni Angelides is a Political Science MA candidate at George Washington University. She is currently serving as a Communications and Marketing Intern with Equal Justice USA. Look for her Newsline stories in the weeks and months to come!