Death penalty fight: Philly’s District Attorney takes Governor Tom Wolf to court, calls moratorium “a fraud”

Williams Wolf

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams wants Tom Wolf’s death penalty moratorium rejected and is taking the new governor’s decree to court.

Williams’ office filed a petition this afternoon with the state Supreme Court asking for the rejection. Wolf announced the moratorium last week through an executive order. The Supreme Court can now decide to decline Williams’ petition or revoke Wolf’s moratorium.

Williams’ office argues Wolf’s moratorium — or reprieve — is unconstitutional because it’s not really a reprieve, due to its open-ended nature. Williams, like Wolf a Democrat, argues that in Pennsylvania history a reprieve has always meant a postponement of criminal judgement with a defined timetable in which a defendant can seek a way to eliminate charges or a conviction or to allow new evidence to be presented. Wolf didn’t give a timetable for how long his order would last, except for that it would stay in effect at least until a legislative commission finished a years-long study on the death penalty.

The filing also called out Wolf for saying the death penalty should only exist if it’s infallible. Williams’ office contends that the governor’s position isn’t possible.

“The supposed end point for the Governor’s illegal moratorium is a chimera that can never exist,” writes Williams in the filing. “Calling the instant act a reprieve, therefore, is simply a fraud.”

How long might it take the Supreme Court to make a decision? Recently the Centre County District Attorney filed a petition with the Supreme Court over a criminal investigation aimed at her and it only took two weeks for the Supreme Court to rule.

Though Pennsylvania has 186 people are on death row, nobody has been executed since 1999. It’s basically a death penalty in name only. The only three inmates to be executed in state history gave up their rights to appeal or seek commutations of their sentences. Williams has pursued a few death penalty cases as DA, but his predecessor, mayoral candidate Lynne Abraham, put 45 people on death row while pursuing the death penalty many more times.

Recently, Williams was asked by the New York Times whether he’d be interested in taking the office of embroiled state attorney general Kathleen Kane if her job opened up. He said, “If the governor called me, I’d have to think about it.”

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