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.
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.”
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.
You can read Wolf’s complete order here:
[This post has been updated. First posted: 11:22 a.m.]