Pennsylvania’s Death Penalty Was Just Suspended


Gov. Tom Wolf (D-PA) just suspended the death penalty. “If the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is going to take the irrevocable step of executing a human being, its capital sentencing system must be infallible. Pennsylvania’s system is riddled with flaws, making it error prone, expensive, and anything but infallible,” he said in a memorandum released Friday.

The governor cited numerous reasons for his decision, including the costs associated with managing death row. Wolf pointed to a prior estimation that the “capital justice apparatus” costs more than $300 million. He also acknowledged grievances about the financial impact of court battles to stay or proceed with an execution. As inmates appeal their sentences and courts grant or deny their requests, the cycle “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.”

In addition to costs, Wolf noted discrepancies in the racial makeup of death row inmates, which many claim is indicative of a biased system. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court Committee on Racial and Gender Bias in the Justice System previously found that minorities made up two-thirds of death row, but only made up 11 percent of the state’s population. Four years later, a separate Pennsylvania Death Penalty Assessment Team reported a systemic failure to protect innocent people from lawyers who don’t provide strong defenses.

Moreover, Wolf pointed to recent exoneration trends as a symptom of a questionable justice system. Out of 1547 exonerees, 51 were from Pennsylvania.

“To be clear at the outset, this reprieve is in no way an expression of sympathy for the guilty on death row, all of whom have been convicted of committing heinous crimes, and all of whom must be held to account,” Wolf explained. “The guilty deserve no compassion, and receive none from me. I have nothing but the deepest appreciation for the work of victim advocates, and sympathize and stand with all those who have suffered at the hands of those in our society who turn to violence.”

The moratorium will last until the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment submits guidance on the use of capital punishment, a power granted by Senate Resolution 6. In doing so, the governor reprieved Terrence Williams, an inmate whose complicated case previously led prosecutors to argue for life imprisonment.

Pennsylvania reinstituted the death penalty in 1978, and three executions have occurred since then. Today there are 186 inmates on the state’s death row. But Pennsylvania is not the first state to question capital punishment. Indeed, botched executions in the last year have led many to argue that the combination of drugs used to kill inmates is inhumane, and states are beginning to explore alternative ways of putting down prisoners.