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In Past Three Years, Governors in Three States Declare Moratorium on Executions

In Past Three Years, Governors in Three States Declare Moratorium on Executions

by Christopher Zoukis

Three states have imposed moratoriums on the death penalty since 2013, raising to 11 the number of states that still have a death penalty but have stopped executing prisoners for reasons ranging from doubts about the fairness of capital punishment to the cost of executions.

Pennsylvania’s newly-elected Governor Tom Wolf announced his state’s moratorium on February 13, 2015 when granting a reprieve to Terrance Williams, who had been scheduled for execution after exhausting appeals of his conviction and capital sentence for beating a man to death with a tire iron in 1984.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams challenged the governor’s ability to grant reprieves, declaring that Wolf had overstepped his authority if it was his intent to halt the execution of all 181 prisoners on Pennsylvania’s death row.

But in a unanimous ruling issued December 21, 2015, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld Wolf’s moratorium because the reprieve did not establish an end date nor was it related to Williams’ – or any other prisoner’s – specific circumstances.

“We find no limitation on the executive reprieve power relating to the duration of the reprieve, so long as it is temporary in nature and operates only for an interval of time,” wrote Justice Max Baer.

Justice Correale F. Stevens urged that the reprieve be temporary and that the governor’s action not be construed as an attempt to sidestep the law.

“The families of the victims are victimized again and again, this time by the failure of the criminal justice system to carry out the law,” wrote Stevens. “If there is to be no death penalty law in Pennsylvania, such decision should come from the legislative body.” See: Commonwealth v. Williams, 2015 Pa. LEXIS 2973 (Pa. Dec. 21, 2015).

In a statement announcing the moratorium, Governor Wolf said his decision did not reflect sympathy for prisoners on death row, but instead was designed to permit completion of a legislative study currently underway into the death penalty’s fairness and cost, and whether it is actually a deterrent to heinous crimes.

“My decision to issue temporary reprieves came after significant consideration and reflection, and was in no way an expression of sympathy for the guilty on death row,” he stated. “My only sympathy lies with the family members of the victims of these horrible crimes.”

“The reprieve ... shall remain in effect until I have received and reviewed the forthcoming report of the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment (established under Senate Resolution 6 of 2011), and any recommendations contained therein are satisfactorily addressed,” Wolf said. “In addition, it is my intention to grant a reprieve in each future instance in which an execution is scheduled, until this condition is met.”

Only three people have been executed in the 37 years since Pennsylvania reinstated the death penalty, the last in 1999. All three had volunteered by waiving their right to appeal.

“If the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is going to take the irrevocable step of executing a human being, its capital sentencing system must be infallible. Pennsylvania’s system is riddled with flaws, making it error prone, expensive, and anything but infallible,” the governor noted. “While data is incomplete, there are strong indications that a person is more likely to be charged with a capital offense and sentenced to death if he is poor or of a minority racial group, and particularly where the victim of the crime was Caucasian,” he continued.

Furthermore, Wolf said, administering the state’s death penalty creates a tremendous burden on taxpayers.

“A recent analysis conducted by the Reading Eagle estimates that the capital justice apparatus has cost taxpayers at least $315 million, but noted that this figure was very likely low,” the governor stated. “Other estimates have suggested the cost to be $600 million or more. The Commonwealth has received very little, if any, benefit from this massive expenditure.”

Wolf’s remarks echo those made by other governors who have declared similar moratoriums in their states, such as those made by Washington Governor Jay Inslee on February 11, 2014 when announcing a halt to executions for as long as he was in office. Inslee said he holds no special sympathy for condemned prisoners, but believes the death penalty is unfairly applied.

“Let me say that this policy decision is not about the nine men on death row in Walla Walla [prison],” the governor explained. “I don’t question their guilt or the gravity of their crimes. They get no mercy from me. This action does not commute their sentences or issue any pardons to any offender. But I do not believe that their horrific offenses override the problems that exist in our capital punishment system.”

“There have been too many doubts raised about capital punishment, there are too many flaws in this system today,” Inslee said at a news conference. “And when the ultimate decision is death, there is too much at stake to accept an imperfect system.”

“The use of the death penalty is unequally applied, sometimes dependent on the budget of the county where the crime occurred,” the governor added. He said his decision to halt executions came after months of review on current and past cases, as well as meetings with prosecutors, law enforcement officials and family members of victims.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said that while the state constitution allows Inslee to ban all executions, the Attorney General’s office will continue to defend against death row prisoners who challenge their sentences or convictions.

State Rep. Reuven Carlyle, a Seattle Democrat who has sponsored bills to abolish the death penalty in Washington, hailed Inslee’s move as a “profound shift” in momentum for ending capital punishment.

Since 1984, when Washington’s current death sentence protocol was enacted, 18 of the 32 defendants who were sentenced to die have had their sentences converted to life in prison, while one was set free. All of the nine remaining prisoners on the state’s death row have appeals pending in state or federal courts.

In Colorado, Governor John Hickenlooper called for reconsideration of capital punishment when he stayed indefinitely the execution of Nathan Dunlap on May 22, 2013.

“If the State of Colorado is going to undertake the responsibility of executing a human being, the system must operate flawlessly. Colorado’s system for capital punishment is not flawless,” Hickenlooper wrote in his executive order. “A recent study co-authored by several law professors showed that under Colorado’s capital sentencing system, death is not handed down fairly.”

“I once believed that the death penalty had value as a deterrent,” the govenor added. “Unfortunately, people continue to commit these crimes in the face of the death penalty. The death penalty is not making our world a safer or better place.”

The Death Penalty Information Center reports that moratoriums, de facto moratoriums and court holds continue in other states that retain the death penalty, including California, North Carolina, Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Ohio and Arkansas. The death penalty has been formally abolished in 19 states. Nationwide, 28 executions were conducted last year – the lowest number since 1991.

Sources: Associated Press, Reuters,,,, 

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Related legal case

Commonwealth v. Williams