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Pennsylvania’s governor suspends the death penalty

Gov. Tom Wolf (D) declared a moratorium on the death penalty in Pennsylvania saying it was a flawed system that is "ineffective, unjust, and expensive." (Video: Reuters)
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Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf announced Friday that he had suspended the death penalty until he reviews a report on capital punishment in the state.

“This moratorium is in no way an expression of sympathy for the guilty on death row, all of whom have been convicted of committing heinous crimes,” Wolf said in a statement. “This decision is based on a flawed system that has been proven to be an endless cycle of court proceedings as well as ineffective, unjust, and expensive.”

This announcement comes as the death penalty’s use across the country has declined considerably in recent years, with executions and death sentences both dropping well below numbers seen in the last two decades.

Pennsylvania has not executed an inmate since 1999 and has carried out only three executions since 1976, making it one of the least-active states with the death penalty. Yet the state also has one of the largest populations of death-row inmates. There are 186 people currently on death row in the state, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections said, trailing only California, Florida, Texas and Alabama.

Some of Pennsylvania’s inmates have been there for more than three decades. A series of governors have signed hundreds of death warrants over the last three decades, and dozens of inmates have had their names on at least three of these warrants. One inmate, Mark Spotz, has had six death warrants signed since 1998. He is currently in the state prison in Waynesburg.

Inmates are regularly spared following appeals and court stays. In his order Friday, Wolf defended the necessity of the review process while also saying that the state’s sytem was “riddled with flaws.”

“This 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,” Wolf wrote in the order. “The only certainty in the current system is that the process will be drawn out,expensive, and painful for all involved.”

A similar situation has played out in California, which is home to the largest death row population in the country but has executed 13 people since 1976. Last year, a federal judge said the California system was unconstitutional, writing that it was “plagued by inordinate and unpredictable delay” due to the long, winding appeals process there.

The Pennsylvania State Senate established a task force and advisory commission on capital punishment in 2011, charging them with exploring whether there is bias or unfairness involved in the trials and sentencing, the potential risks of sentencing innocent people to death and whether the death penalty does anything to improve public safety or deter criminal action.

Wolf said that the moratorium announced Friday “will remain in effect until this commission has produced its recommendation and all concerns are addressed satisfactorily.” While campaigning for governor last fall, Wolf said he planned to impose a moratorium on executions until the state had studied the issue.

The decision was criticized by the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, which said the governor was misusing his power.

“A moratorium is just a ploy,” the association said in a statement. “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 capital punishment task force was also told to study whether there are “procedures and protocols in place” to make sure that the death sentence can be carried out in a constitutional manner. This issue has been raised by death-penalty opponents and attorneys for people on death row recently because states have responded to a drug shortage by using new and untested drug combinations for executions.

This spring, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider the issue of lethal injection, hearing a case involving the drugs used in Oklahoma executions. The justices last considered the topic of lethal injection in 2008, upholding the procedure, but the lethal injection drugs used at that time are no longer used nationwide.

States around the country have been struggling to obtain the drugs needed to carry out lethal injections, and Pennsylvania has not been immune to this situation. The state said last fall it was postponing an execution because it did not have any lethal injection drugs, an announcement that came after the American Civil Liberties Union in Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit on behalf of four media organizations demanding additional information regarding the lethal injection drugs the state planned to use. Meanwhile, Ohio used a new drug combination in a controversial execution last year; it said last month that it would seek different drugs and postponed every execution scheduled for 2015.

On Friday, Wolf also said that six people on death row have been exonerated in Pennsylvania. Last year, six people on death row were exonerated nationwide, according to a report from the National Registry of Exonerations.

Wolf said he will grant reprieves to every execution scheduled for the time being. This began on Friday, with Wolf issuing a temporary reprieve to Terrance Williams, who was scheduled for execution on March 4. Williams was convicted of robbing and murdering an acquaintance and was sentenced to death in 1987; the death warrant setting his execution for March 4 was his third such warrant.

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Caput issued a statement praising Wolf’s decision and said he prayed for a better way to punish convicted criminals.

“Turning away from capital punishment does not diminish our support for the families of murder victims,” Caput said. “They bear a terrible burden of grief and they rightly demand justice. But killing the guilty does not honor the dead nor does it ennoble the living. When we take a guilty person’s life we only add to the violence in an already violent culture and we demean our own dignity in the process.”

Pennsylvania has effectively formalized what has already become the status quo in that state, but it follows on the heels of similar movement nationwide. Washington state suspended the death penalty last year without officially banning it. Meanwhile, Maryland abolished capital punishment in 2013 and, last year, said the four inmates still on death row would have their death sentences lifted. There are currently 18 states without the death penalty, and a third of them have banned the practice since 2007.

Executions in Pennsylvania are supposed to be carried out using lethal injection at the State Correctional Institution Rockview, which is not far from Pennsylvania State University in State College.

More than half of the American public supports capital punishment, but this number has fallen over the last two decades. Experts attribute this drop to the number of convictions that have been overturned through DNA evidence and other means.

You can read Wolf’s complete order here:

Death Penalty Moratorium Declaration by Governor Tom Wolf

[This post has been updated. First posted: 11:22 a.m.]


Everything you need to know about the death penalty in the U.S.