Pennsylvania Governor Imposes Moratorium On Death Penalty
Reflecting a growing national trend away from the barbarity of capital punishment, the Governor of Pennsylvania has imposed a moratorium on executions in the Keystone State.
Late last week, Tom Wolf, who is in his second month as Governor of Pennsylvania, announced that he was imposing a moritorium on the death penalty in the Keystone State that will last at least until the completion of a review being conducted by a legislative commission:
Pennsylvania Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf announced a moratorium on his state’s death penalty Friday, stating that he no longer believes his state should take part in a “flawed system.”
In a statement, he says the death penalty “has been proven to be an endless cycle of court proceedings as well as ineffective, unjust, and expensive.
Wolf added that the move “is in no way an expression of sympathy for the guilty on death row.” As part of his rationale, he mentioned that since the death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976, 150 death row inmates have been exonerated, six of whom were convicted in Pennsylvania.
Wolf’s first move in the moratorium process was to grant a temporary reprieve to Terrance Williams, who otherwise would be executed on March 4. The governor announced that for all other upcoming executions, he will grant reprieves and not outright commutations.
The state’s Senate established a task force in 2011 to study the death penalty’s effectiveness. Wolf said he will await its recommendation for a final decision on whether to abolish the death penalty in Pennsylvania outright.
Pennsylvania had scheduled five executions for this March. The three executions scheduled for January were all stayed to allow more time for appeals.
Since 1976, Pennsylvania has executed only three inmates; the last was Gary Heidnik, who was put to death in 1999.
Pennsylvania isn’t the first state to see a moratorium on capital punishment, of course. A similar bar on the death penalty was put in place in Illinois by outgoing Governor George Ryan more than a decade ago, and that moratorium remained in place until last year when Governor Pat Quinn signed a bill into law eliminating the death penalty and replacing it with life without parole as the most severe sentence that can be imposed on a defendant. Similarly, the last decade has seen capital punishment repealed at the state level in a number of states including New Mexico, New Jersey, New York, Maryland, and Connecticut. In all, sixteen states have repealed death penalty laws since 1976, and countless others have had de jure or de facto moratoria in place due either to Executive actions similar to what Governor Wolf has done, or judicial decisions. In many cases, these are states that had reinstated the capital punishing in the 1980’s and 1990’s in response to what had been perceived as a rising crime rate and a criminal justice system that was allegedly too permissive. Many of these states, such as New Jersey, never actually executed anyone even though several defendants had been sentenced to death and spent years on Death Row in the prison system. More recently, we have seen states such as Ohio and Oklahoma have problems with executions due to what appears to be improper use of the drug cocktail used for executions, which itself is partly due to the fact that drug companies have become increasingly unwilling to sell states the drugs used for these executions since they don’t want to be associated with capital punishment. Indeed, although states like Texas and Georgia continue to execute criminals on a regular basis, including in cases where there still seem to be open questions about whether or not the men involved have actually received the fair trial that they are entitled to under the law, it does seem as though public support for capital punishment has waned from the levels it was at in the past. One recent poll, for example, found that Americans favored life without parole over the death penalty by a slim majority, something that hadn’t ever been seen in public opinion polling on the issue before.
I’ve made my own opposition to capital punishment quite clear in the past so, obviously, I find Governor Wolf’s actions, along with the general trend away from the use and acceptance of capital punishment, to be a positive development. While it has long been cited as one of the arguments in favor of capital punishment, the truth is that there is no evidence that the death penalty actually deters crime. Moreover, studies have shown that the death penalty actually ends up costs states more than life without parole on average. Studies have also shown that the sentence tends to be imposed in a disproportionate manner on minorities and the poor, and this especially seems to be true in states like Texas where the legislature seems to give little priority to funding an adequate indigent criminal defense program. We also know that, despite the protestations of supporters, the death penalty has resulted in the death of innocent people, a fact which seems to be reinforced by the recent FBI announcement that it would be reviewing forensic evidence in a host of old death penalty evidence after evidence of widespread errors. There are still states where capital punishment goes forward on somewhat regular basis, of course, with Texas, Georgia, Virginia, and Oklahoma being among those states where capital punishment still remains somewhat common. Slowly but surely, though, the tide seems to be turning, and last week’s action by Governor Wolf is just the latest example of that. Before long, we may actually see the day when execution by the state will finally come to an end. Considering where public opinion on this issue was twenty years ago, the fact that we can even talk about such as a possibility is a huge, and positive, development.