• Ryan D. Very, Esq.

Governor Wolf's death penalty reprieve

Did Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf violate the Pennsylvania Constitution when he reprieved a death row inmate's execution based on his concerns that “the capital punishment system has significant and widely recognized defects?” The Pennsylvania Supreme Court answered “no" on Monday. The arguments asserted in the case raise questions about the legal status of the death penalty in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Constitution grants the Governor the power to grant “reprieves, commutations of sentences, and pardons” provided that pardons and commutations be approved by a specially appointed Board of Pardons. In the case at hand, Governor Wolf reprieved the execution of Terrance Williams of Philadelphia, convicted of beating a robbery victim to death with a tire iron in 1984. The execution was scheduled by Pennsylvania's previous governor Tom Corbett. Wolf issued the reprieve so that a bipartisan task force could review the defects of Pennsylvania’s capital punishment system. The task force was established in light of the fact that, since 1978, 352 people have been sentenced to die in Pennsylvania, and only three have been executed. The task force was appointed to investigate race and gender bias, weigh the costs of the death penalty, and evaluate the quality of counsel provided to indigent capital defendants.

In response to Governor Wolf's reprieve, the District Attorney of Philadelphia filed an emergency petition, arguing that Governor Wolf exceeded his powers by indefinitely reprieving the execution based on personal beliefs. On Monday, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania rejected the District Attorney's argument because the Court viewed Governor Wolf’s reprieve as a temporary postponement pending a triggering event, and because the Court viewed the District Attorney as asking them to question of the wisdom of Wolf’s postponement, rather than its constitutional validity.

Whatever you think of the arguments asserted in the case, and whatever your position on the morality of the death penalty, it cannot be denied that capital punishment in Pennsylvania is, as a legal procedure, puzzling. Since only three of 352 people sentenced to death in Pennsylvania since 1978 have been executed, you stand less than a one percent chance of being executed if sentenced to die in Pennsylvania. Even then, all three of those executed in Pennsylvania waived their rights to appeal, meaning that they, in effect, volunteered to die. Therefore, it seems inaccurate to say that Pennsylvania is a death penalty state, even though it is. Granted, Governor Wolf's reprieve perhaps contributed to the paradox that it is nearly impossible, yet completely legal, to execute someone in Pennsylvania. But the validity of the other grounds on which the task force was established cannot be denied. Blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately more likely to be sentenced to death for a given crime, especially when the victim was white. And it has been widely recognized that courts have not closely scrutinized the conduct of court-appointed counsel at the penalty phase of capital trials. Contrary to the Philadelphia District Attorney's assertions, these concerns are more than mere personal beliefs, but facts that, in my opinion, warrant further investigation.

The Court's opinion can be found here.

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