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Death Penalty in Pennsylvania

published on March 4, 2015, 2014 by Kristen Weisenberger

On February 13, 2015, Governor Tom Wolf issued a temporary reprieve to death row inmate Terrence Williams and any other inmate who may be scheduled for death, until the Governor has reviewed a yet to be released report from the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment and any recommendations made by the committee are satisfactorily addressed.  Governor Wolf, despite what many have argued, has not abolished the death penalty in Pennsylvania.

In issuing the moratorium, Governor Wolf cited several defects in the capital punishment system.  Primarily the fact that 434 people have been sentenced to death in over forty years; however, only three individuals have actually been executed.  Those three individuals who have been executed had all voluntarily surrendered their appellate rights.  Furthermore, individuals sentenced to death are scheduled for execution multiple times, only to be granted a reprieve at the last minute.  This creates a hardship to the defendant, his family and to the victim’s family.  Also, the current capital punishment system is expensive (some reports estimate the cost to taxpayers for housing death row inmates is approximately $600 million dollars); lengthy (the appellate process can average ten to twenty years); and burdensome to all parties involved.  Last but not least, at least six men in Pennsylvania, who would have been otherwise executed, have had their sentences overturned by new evidence and technological advances; 150 nationwide.

In July, 2014, California declared the death penalty unconstitutional citing many of the reasons listed above.  In Jones v. Chappell, CV 09-02158-CJC (U.S. Dist.Ct. Central Dist. CA, July 16, 2014), the Court referenced lengthy delays in the appellate system causing inmates to sit twenty to forty years before their cases may be heard, which caused very few executions ever being carried out.  The Court determined the capital punishment system therefore serves no penological purpose.

In February, 2015, Attorney General Eric Holder called for a moratorium on the death penalty.  The United States Supreme Court is currently considering a case regarding the use of lethal injection out of Oklahoma after the botched injection of Clayton Lockett.  Oklahoma and Florida have both declared a moratorium on the death penalty until the Supreme Court has ruled on this matter.

In 2007, a Death Penalty Assessment Team appointed by the American Bar Association reviewed the capital punishment system and found flaws, including inadequate procedures to protect the innocent, failure to protect against poor defense lawyering, no state funding of capital indigent defense services, inadequate access to experts and investigators, lack of data on death-eligible cases, significant limitations on post-conviction relief, significant capital juror confusion, and racial and geographical disparities in Pennsylvania capital sentencing.

In 2012, the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Committee requested then Governor Corbett to suspend all executions until the capital punishment system has been thoroughly reviewed in order to eliminate the risk of executing an innocent person.  This is what Governor Wolf has done.

There are undeniable flaws in a system where the ultimate outcome is death.  For Pennsylvania and the nation to continue to seek the death penalty in cases we owe it to ourselves to make sure these flaws have been addressed.  While conversations regarding the death penalty usually involve the most heinous of crimes we would be hypocritical to suggest that system which allows a few innocent men to be executed is one beneficial to our great nation.

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