death penalty

Tom Wolf’s death penalty moratorium: What it means for Eric Frein, Seth Williams and everyone on Death Row

It’s been two weeks since Gov. Tom Wolf announced a moratorium on the death penalty throughout the state — something capital punishment opponents had begged his predecessor to do for years.

But not everyone’s a fan. Since then, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has filed a petition claiming that the moratorium is illegal, other prosecutors said they don’t like the move and defense attorneys for inmates on death row are ready to capitalize. 

But how can Wolf just waltz into office and do this? Is Death Row now a thing of the past? And what happens to people who are convicted of first-degree murder? Here’s what we could dig up:

Tom Wolf says he is completely within his rights to do this

The governor who’s been in office for just more than a month now says that he has the right to institute the moratorium under an article of the state constitution that allows governors to grant reprieves to inmates facing execution.

It’s worth noting that in his first memo detailing the moratorium he instituted (a campaign promise!) he made sure to note that the move doesn’t mean he has sympathy for those convicted of heinous crimes. But he did say that death penalty causes an unending cycle of appeals that leads to inmates sitting on death row for decades.

Seth Williams disagrees!

Williams claims that Wolf’s reprieve isn’t really a reprieve at all because of its widespread nature. The Philadelphia District Attorney (who, like Wolf, is a Democrat) is taking the governor to court and filed a petition with the Supreme Court last week asking it to overturn the moratorium on the basis it’s unconstitutional.

Williams says that historically, reprieves are used in order to push back sentencing or executions, but there is usually a set-in-stone timetable attached to that reprieve. The time is allotted so that defendants can present new evidence in their cases or research other ways to go about defending themselves.

The district attorney’s issue is that there was no timetable attached to this — Wolf basically said, “No more executions ‘til further notice.”

That ‘further notice’ depends on a task force

The only timetable that is loosely attached to Wolf’s refusal to sign death warrants is the releasing of a report by the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment — a group of four senators (two Dems, two Republicans) as well as more than 20 advisory members, including Williams.

The task force was charged in 2011 and given two years to come up with a report about capital punishment in Pennsylvania and recommendations to improve its system.  No such report has yet been released, putting the task force well past its 2013 deadline.

The task force is basically taking forever because they have a lot to do

Democratic Montgomery County Sen. Daylin Leach sits on the task force and has defended its work thus far. Steve Hoenstine, Leach’s spokesman, said the task force has produced drafts of its report but continues to work on it and analyze data.

“The task force and advisory committee have been working diligently on this since it began,” Hoenstine said. “They have encountered obstacles… the resolution is going to take more time to fulfill than what people anticipated originally.”

The bill that provided for the task force, SR 6, was passed in 2011, enabling the study of the death penalty in the state. And the scope is wide: It asks the four senators and the advisory committee to weigh the monetary cost, bias and unfairness, mental illness, juries, the appeals process, lethal injection, public opinion and a variety of other topics.

What’s made it difficult is that in order to study these issues, task force members have had to obtain records on convictions and executions from every county, and separately pore over documents from each of the state’s 67 counties that have their own governments and their own records filing systems.

For now, the group has no projected deadline.

Inmates on death row are still on death row

Just because the Governor says the death penalty is on hold doesn’t mean it goes away completely. Some defense attorneys across the state have attempted to use the moratorium as a way to claim that subjecting their clients to the death penalty would constitute cruel and unusual punishment, since the state governor has effectively taken a stand against it.

However, Wolf’s spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan told Billy Penn that Wolf’s moratorium does not change sentencing laws and it does not change the confinement or conditions for inmates on death row.

Not that it would have meant much for inmates on death row anyway

Yes, the inmates want to get off death row and rid their chances of facing lethal injection. But the chances of them facing it are slim to none anyway — a de facto moratorium on the death penalty has existed in Pennsylvania for the last 40 years.

Even though Pennsylvania has the fifth largest death row in the country (186 people), it has only executed three people in the last four decades since the general assembly reinstated the death penalty. In each of those three cases, the person voluntarily gave up his right for further appeals.

The last time someone was executed in Pennsylvania was 1999, when Gary Heidnik, a 55-year-old from Philadelphia, died by lethal injection after he was convicted of kidnapping, raping and torturing six women in his basement, and of murdering two of the women. His “House of Horrors” was later adopted for the other guy (not Anthony Hopkins) in The Silence of the Lambs movie.

The last time a person was executed in Pennsylvania against their will was 1962, even though execution warrants were signed by Gov. Tom Corbett as recently as last month.

Courts can still sentence defendants to death

Just like death row inmates are still SOL despite the moratorium, defendants facing the death penalty are still subject to it. After Wolf’s moratorium was put into place, some were upset because of one man: Eric Frein.

You remember Frein: He was the guy who, in September, allegedly staked out a police station in Pike County, shot two officers (killing one), and hid from law enforcement for a month-and-a-half until he was found by US Marshals. He faces the death penalty, and because Wolf’s moratorium doesn’t change sentencing laws, he could still be sentenced to it.

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