When Gov. Tom Wolf declared a moratorium on executions in Pennsylvania, he underscored the true state of affairs regarding capital punishment in Pennsylvania.
The Department of Corrections says there are currently 182 men and three women on death row, including one from this county. Only three people have been executed in Pennsylvania since the death penalty was legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976, and all three of them had voluntarily given up on their appeals.
That means there are 182 people who, in effect, have a life sentence. This is because the appeals those people on death row can file is almost limitless. If they should run out of appeals there is always the federal office of Public Defender in Philadelphia who can pick up the process on their behalf. What we have is de facto commutation of the death sentence to life in prison.
Gov. Wolf announced the moratorium in February, suspending plans to execute Terrance Williams for a 1984 robbery and fatal tire-iron beating of another man in Philadelphia. Wolf has called the current system error-prone and expensive, and announced plans to continue to issue reprieves while a legislative committee prepares a report about the state’s use of capital punishment.
Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan said the governor’s policy does not affect the outcome of any case or any sentence, or the conditions of confinement for death row prisoners.
The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association does not agree with that conclusion. The DA’s believe Wolf’s death penalty moratorium could affect plea bargains and how judges and juries view executions. They argue the moratorium violates elements of the state constitution.
The association released a friend-of-the-court brief in a case before the state Supreme Court that challenges the governor’s policy. They say the governor misinterpreted the term “reprieve.” The prosecutors said reprieves can only halt a criminal sentence for a defined period of time and for a reason that relates specifically to a particular convict.
“Without a proper check from this court, the governor’s actions will have increasingly negative effects on the criminal justice system,” the prosecutors’ group told the justices. For example, the so-called moratorium may impact plea discussions and negotiations and may impact how judges and juries view the death penalty.”
Only one reprieve has been issued, for Williams, but others may follow.
The prosecutors’ group said Wolf’s actions run counter to state constitutional provisions that require a unanimous vote of the Pardons Board to permanently change any life or death sentence before the governor can commute it.
They also argued that the constitution does not specifically give the governor the ability to grant a reprieve without a formal petition or an application for clemency from the inmate, so it’s “of questionable legitimacy” for him to do so.
They also said Wolf has a constitutional obligation to faithfully execute the laws, and that under the separation-of-powers doctrine he may not unilaterally refuse to enforce a law, even if he disagrees with the policy.
Does any of this sound familiar? It is a disturbing trend among elected officials to pick and choose which laws they will enforce. Attorney General Kathleen Kane did so with the marriage laws in the state before the court ruled on the validity of the law. Of course the President has been ruling by Executive Order for the past two years, often in the face of the law and certainly Congress.
Gov. Wolf may be right on this issue but he best be careful on this issue. The victims and their families have rights as well and the law has been very careful to safeguard both. The Governor’s opinion should not overturn two centuries of good law.