Moral Low Ground


Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf Declares Moratorium on ‘Flawed, Unjust’ Death Penalty

(Gov. Tom Wolf)

(Gov. Tom Wolf)

Pennsylvania’s governor has announced a moratorium on executions, calling the state’s capital punishment system “flawed, ineffective, unjust and expensive.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat elected last November, announced the suspension of capital punishment in the nation’s sixth-most populous state on Friday. Wolf, who expressed his opposition to capital punishment during his election campaign, cited a nationwide wave of exonerations and concerns about the effectiveness of executing prisoners as factors which influenced his decision.

“This moratorium is in no way an expression of sympathy for the guilty on death row, all of whom have been convicted of committing heinous crimes,” Wolf said in a statement published on his website. “This decision is based on a flawed system that has been proven to be an endless cycle of court proceedings as well as ineffective, unjust, and expensive.”

“This unending cycle of death warrants and appeals diverts resources from the judicial system and forces the families and loved ones of victims to relive their tragedies each time a new round of warrants and appeals commences,” Wolf’s statement added. “The only certainty in the current system is that the process will be drawn out, expensive and painful for all involved.”

Pennsylvania, which hasn’t executed anyone since 1999, has put three convicts to death since reinstating capital punishment in 1976. But Terrance Williams, sentenced to death for the 1984 murder of 56-year-old Germantown church volunteer Amos Norwood, was scheduled to be killed by lethal injection on March 4. Williams’ life will now be spared.

There were 186 inmates on Pennsylvania’s death row at the time of Wolf’s announcement.

Wolf said he would suspend executions as he awaits a report on capital punishment. The Washington Post reports the state Senate created a task force and advisory commission on capital punishment in 2011 with the goal of determining whether there is racial bias or unfairness in the trial and sentencing phases of capital cases. The task force and commission also examined the risk that innocent defendants might be executed, and questions about whether or not capital punishment serves as a deterrent and improves public safety.

The 66-year-old governor said that the moratorium announced Friday “will remain in effect until this commission has produced its recommendation and all concerns are addressed satisfactorily.”

Death penalty opponents welcomed Friday’s news.

Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty issued statements from multiple members, including one from Megan Smith, whose father and stepmother were murdered in Lancaster County in 2011.

“I applaud Gov. Wolf for recognizing that Pennsylvania’s capital punishment system is broken in so many ways,” Smith said in her statement. “It costs far more than imprisoning murderers for life. It is inconsistent and arbitrary, and it sometimes sentences innocent people to die.”

Philadelphia Catholic Archbishop Charles Chaput told the Inquirer he was “very grateful to Governor Wolf for choosing to take a deeper look into these studies, and I pray we can find a better way to punish those who are guilty of these crimes.”

But supporters of capital punishment expressed their disappointment and anger at Wolf’s decision.

Charles Hicks was convicted of murdering Deanna Null in Scranton in 2008 and sentenced to die. He will now escape his fatal fate for the time being. That does not sit well with Null’s relatives, who like many victims’ family members, want revenge.

“He deserves to be put to death for the crime that he committed,” asserted Angela Kimble, Null’s sister, in an interview with WNEP. “It’s not fair.”

“A moratorium is just a ploy,” the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association said in a statement. “Make no mistake, this action is not about waiting for a study —  it’s about the governor ignoring duly enacted law and imposing his personal views against the death penalty.”

The Pennsylvania State Trooper’s Association called the moratorium a “travesty” and “a sad day for Pennsylvania.” The association noted that the move will impact prosecutors’ plans to seek the death penalty in the case of Eric Frein, who is accused of the September 12, 2014 ambush killing of State Police Cpl. Bryon Dickson and wounding of Trooper Alex Douglass.

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