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.

Death Chamber

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 Similarly, the last decade has seen capital punishment repealed at the state level in a number of states including New Mexico, New Jersey, New York, Maryland, and Connecticut.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.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. DrDaveT says:

    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.

    I liked pretty much everything about your article except the lede. Nothing that Governor Wolf said implied any sense at all that capital punishment is ipso facto barbaric.

    What he implied is that he would be perfectly content to execute those guilty of capital crimes, but that he (and we as a society) can’t be sufficiently sure of who those people are, or that the law is being applied impartially across all segments of society, to permit us to follow through on that desire to execute the guilty.

    It ain’t about barbarity; it’s about justice. I’m OK with that.

  2. michael reynolds says:

    I agree with Dr Dave’s one objection.

    I’ve never been impressed with the barbarity argument. I have no moral objection to executing murderers. My objection as a long-time death penalty opponent is that I don’t like making mistakes that cannot be un-made. You can let an innocent man out of jail, you cannot bring him back to life.

    Death penalty, like racism, like gun obsession, like gay-bashing, like anti-immigrant hysteria, like Republicanism itself, is increasingly a southern and mountain state thing. These are rustic states with disproportionate power in government. They are the dead weight this country drags through life.

  3. I think most of the recent change with support for the death penalty isn’t loss of support in the death penalty per se, so much as loss of trust in the government to administer it. Between increased public awareness over police and prosecutorial corruption and the increasingly common string of exonerations due evidential and trial irregularities, a lot of people just don’t want to trust the system with the power to issue a punishment that can’t be retracted later.

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Meanwhile, Missouri has put in a fast lane.***

    ***Yes, I stole that from one of the BC boys, whose name escapes me.

  5. bill says:

    “barbarity”, really? only the lowest of the low get the death penalty- and it’s just a shot…..not like they deserve better than what they did.

  6. DrDaveT says:


    only the lowest of the low get the death penalty

    Right. Well, and some innocent guys. And then only if they’re black. But otherwise, yeah, exactly.

  7. gVOR08 says:

    @DrDaveT: @michael reynolds: To me the key thing is that the death penalty changes society’s message from, “Thou shalt not kill.” to, “Thou shalt not kill, but…”

    I got myself off a death penalty jury years ago. I was having difficulty seeing the difference between what the two lawyers from the prosecutor’s office said the guy had done to his wife in a fit of rage and what they were trying to do to him with the coldest premeditation.

  8. Tyrell says:

    @DrDaveT: With new forensic methods and more in the future, we are seeing a lot of wrongly convicted people being released. We are also seeing a lot of old cases finally being solved. I look for this to wind up at the Supreme Court. What will they do to make sure that these killers don’t pull some sort of escape, either by sawing their way out, digging tunnels, or some sort of disguise schemes ? That is what you have to be concerned about, especially if you live near one of those places. It would also have to be guaranteed no parole for the murderers, terrorists, serial killers, and assassins. And none of these “country club” prisons for those types of people.
    I hope someday that dna or some other technology can finally prove once and for all the identity of that Jack the Ripper person.

  9. DrDaveT says:


    What will they do to make sure that these killers don’t pull some sort of escape, either by sawing their way out, digging tunnels, or some sort of disguise schemes ? That is what you have to be concerned about

    No. What I have to be concerned about is punishing the innocent. I would rather a raft of guilty murderers go free than that one innocent person be punished for murder.

    Are you seriously arguing for a different set of priorities? There are a lot of police states in the world that you could move to…

  10. bill says:

    @Stormy Dragon: um, he wasn’t executed obviously….
    @DrDaveT: the 70’s called, they want their race baiters back.