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Pennsylvania governor imposes moratorium on death penalty

February 13, 2015 GMT

HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania (AP) — Newly elected Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in the state Friday, calling the current system of capital punishment “error-prone, expensive and anything but infallible.”

Wolf said the moratorium will remain in effect at least until he receives a report from a legislative commission that has been studying the topic for about four years.

“If we are to continue to administer the death penalty, we just take further steps to ensure that defendants have appropriate counsel at every stage of their prosecution, that the sentence is applied fairly and proportionally, and that we eliminate the risk of executing an innocent,” Wolf said in a memorandum announcing the policy.


The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association said Wolf had no authority to impose the moratorium, calling it a misuse of the concept of a reprieve.

“He has rejected the decisions of juries that wrestled with the facts and the law before unanimously imposing the death penalty, disregarded a long line of decisions made by Pennsylvania and federal judges, ignored the will of the Legislature, and ultimately turned his back on the silenced victims of cold-blooded killers,” the association said in a written statement.

An association spokeswoman said legal action in response was likely, and possible options were already being discussed at a meeting Friday of the group’s executive committee in Pittsburgh.

Pennsylvania’s death row, which has been shrinking, now houses 183 men and three women, but the state has executed only three people since the U.S. Supreme Court restored the death penalty in 1976 — the last one in 1999. All three had voluntarily given up their appeals.

The reasons for the state’s lack of executions have long been debated in Pennsylvania legal circles. Some have attributed it to opposition to the death penalty among judges on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals or to aggressive tactics by lawyers who defend people facing execution.

Others say the number of stayed or overturned death sentences demonstrates there are flaws in how those cases are handled, particularly when it comes to providing adequate representation at trial.

Wolf, a Democrat, had promised a death penalty moratorium during his fall campaign against his predecessor, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.

Wolf said Friday that the state’s current system “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. The only certainty in the current system is that the process will be drawn out, expensive and painful for all involved.”