PA death penalty: Why a convicted baby killer probably won’t be executed

What you need to know about executions in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

Raghunandagn Yandamuri is scheduled to be executed Feb. 23. But he probably won’t be.

On Monday, Pa. Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel signed a notice of execution for Yandamuri, who was was sentenced to death in Montgomery County for the 2012 murder of a 10-month-old baby and her grandmother. It’s the first signed death warrant of 2018, and the 30th signed by Wetzel since Gov. Tom Wolf placed a moratorium on capital punishment back in Feb. 2015.

That’s right: Despite Wolf’s freeze — and the fact that only three executions have been carried out in the 40 years since Pennsylvania reinstated the death penalty — the DOC continues to issue warrants.

The tug of war, and subsequent stays of execution after the writs are signed, makes them “not worth the paper they’re written on,” an expert told Billy Penn last year.

How does Wetzel have authority to sign death warrants anyway?

Prior to Wolf, warrants were signed by the governor. Gov. Tom Corbett signed 48, and Gov. Ed Rendell signed a whopping 119. But Wolf’s refusal to put his name on them kicked in a 1996 clause that says if the governor does not sign, the secretary of corrections will. The original statute was intended to motivate inmates to push through the appeals process faster.

What’s the thinking behind Wolf’s moratorium?

When Wolf issued his moratorium, he called Pennsylvania’s death penalty “a flawed system,” and effectively halted the execution process for the 186 people on death row at the time. He commissioned a report on the topic from the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment, and is awaiting the results. In December 2015, the Pa. Supreme Court upheld Wolf’s moratorium, and it’s been in effect ever since.

How many Pa. death row inmates have been exonerated in Pa.?

Cruelty of punishment and the costliness of the long appeals process are two of the arguments death penalty opponents cite, but another is the possibility of erroneous convictions. Over the past 30 years, 161 people on death row have been exonerated — had their guilty sentences overturned, either due to DNA evidence or other — and six of those were in Pennsylvania.

How does this affect Philadelphia?

New Philly DA Larry Krasner pledged during his campaign never to seek the death penalty. On his campaign website, he called capital punishment “expensive, ineffective and and racially biased.” Several of the 31 people fired from the DAO last week were prosecutors known to continue to press for death sentences despite Wolf’s moratorium.

When was the most recent Pa. execution?

Pennsylvania hasn’t executed anyone in nearly 20 years. In July 1999, Gary Heidnik was executed by lethal injection. He was convicted of six counts of kidnapping, five counts of rape, four counts of aggravated assault and two counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse. Heidnik was given two death sentences and a cumulative prison term of 150 to 300 years.

How have execution methods changed over the years?

In 1834, Pennsylvania was the first state to move from public hangings to private hangings within the confines of jails or prisons. That method stuck until 1915. Then, from 1915 to 1962, all 350 Pennsylvania executions were conducted using the electric chair. In 1990, former Gov. Robert Casey signed legislation that changed Pennsylvania’s method of capital punishment to lethal injection — which it has been ever since.

Will Yandamuri’s case go anywhere?

Short answer: Probably not. Notices of execution — or death warrants — have been around since 1995, and those charged are almost never put to death. Why? Because any inmate sentenced to death has three avenues of appeal (the direct appeal, the indirect appeal and habeas corpus, a federal appeal). If any of those come through, Yandamuri’s case will be stayed. Even if all three of those fail, Wolf has promised to block any execution with his statewide moratorium.