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Pa. Supreme Court upholds Gov. Wolf's death penalty moratorium

| Monday, Dec. 21, 2015, 3:25 p.m.
Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2015, signed a $23.4 billion, line-item-vetoed spending plan that allows the state to begin pumping money to cash-strapped school districts and human service agencies.
Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2015, signed a $23.4 billion, line-item-vetoed spending plan that allows the state to begin pumping money to cash-strapped school districts and human service agencies.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Monday upheld Gov. Tom Wolf's constitutional authority to grant temporary reprieves to inmates on death row.

The case involved Terrance Williams, convicted of beating a man to death with a tire iron in 1984. With Williams' appeals exhausted, former Gov. Tom Corbett had scheduled execution for March 4. Wolf granted a reprieve Feb. 13, pending an overdue report and recommendations from the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment.

Wolf said he would use his constitutional power to grant reprieves to any inmate awaiting the death penalty, effectively putting a hold on all executions until the task force report addresses his concerns that Pennsylvania's capital punishment is too expensive and ineffective. He since has reprieved five convicted killers scheduled for execution.

As of Dec. 1, there were 181 inmates on death row in Pennsylvania, including 24 from Pittsburgh and 11 surrounding counties, according to the state Department of Corrections.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams challenged the governor's decision, saying Wolf overstepped his constitutional authority if he intended to halt all executions with reprieves.

The state Supreme Court unanimously sided with Wolf, saying that his reprieves do not need a set end date or to be related to a prisoner's specific circumstances.

“We find no limitation on the executive reprieve power relating to the duration of the reprieve, so long as it is temporary in nature and operates only for an interval of time,” wrote Justice Max Baer of Mt. Lebanon.

Justice Correale F. Stevens wrote in a concurrent opinion that the decision should not encourage or validate the governor's nullification of existing, valid state laws. Stevens urged that the governor's reprieves be temporary, instead of indefinitely drawing out cases in which courts have upheld the penalty against a prisoner.

“The families of the victims are victimized again and again, this time by the failure of the criminal justice system to carry out the law,” Stevens wrote. “If there is to be no death penalty law in Pennsylvania, such decision should come from the legislative body.”

Wolf said he was pleased with the ruling.

“My decision to issue temporary reprieves came after significant consideration and reflection, and was in no way an expression of sympathy for the guilty on death row,” he said. “My only sympathy lies with the family members of the victims of these horrible crimes.”

The task force was commissioned in late 2011 to study the costs, fairness and deterrence of the death penalty. Its report is expected in 2016.

State Sen. Daylin Leach, a Democrat representing Montgomery and Delaware counties, is one of the four task force members and primary sponsor of Senate Bill 493, which would abolish the death penalty in Pennsylvania.

“With the moratorium in place,” Leach said, “the task force can continue to diligently study concerns about our capital punishment system.”

Wolf's actions have not changed state law, reiterated Mike Manko, spokesman for the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office, which has eight active cases in which prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

Manko said the office “will continue to seek capital punishment in those cases where the facts and evidence deem it appropriate.”

Among death penalty cases being prosecuted in the county are Allen Wade, accused of killing sisters Susan and Sarah Wolfe in East Liberty; Ryan Williams, charged with setting a fire that killed two adults and six children in McKeesport; and Cesar Mazza, charged with killing his ex-girlfriend and her grandmother, then kidnapping his child.

“The death penalty in Pennsylvania is deeply flawed,” said Sara Rose, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which signed onto the case with a brief supporting the governor. “The ACLU opposes the death penalty, but if you're going to have it, it at least has to be administered in a fair way.”

In 37 years since Pennsylvania reinstated the death penalty, only three people have been executed. They volunteered, waiving their rights to appeal. The last execution was in 1999.

Matthew Santoni is a Trib Total Media staff writer.

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