Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Upholds Death Penalty Moratorium

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in early 2015; predictably, the move was lauded by opponents of capital punishment and despised by those in favor of the death penalty. State prosecutors petitioned the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to overturn the moratorium but were unsuccessful.

Governor Wolf’s decision to implement the moratorium on February 13, 2015 involved the case of Terrance Williams, who was convicted of murder and robbery in 1984 and sentenced to death. Having exhausted his appeals and facing execution, Williams was granted a reprieve by Wolf, who extended the reprieve to all death row prisoners. [See: PLN, Feb. 2016, p.44].

Wolf took office in January 2015 after defeating Governor Tom Corbett, a former prosecutor who signed 48 death warrants during his four-year stint as governor. During the gubernatorial campaign, Wolf had declared his support for a moratorium on capital punishment. Pennsylvania has not executed a prisoner since 1999 and carried out only three executions since 1978. There were 175 prisoners on the state’s death row as of November 1, 2016.

In announcing the moratorium, Governor Wolf noted that around 150 people sentenced to death have been exonerated nationwide, including three from Pennsylvania. Philadelphia civil rights attorney David Radovsky added that more than 100 people have been removed from the state’s death row because courts found their trials were unfair.

“His death penalty moratorium is, in reality, a political statement without public discourse or input. Or, apparently, without consideration for those victims left behind,” state Republican leaders said in a statement opposing the governor’s decision.

However, Wolf said the moratorium was not an “expression of sympathy for the guilty on death row, all of whom have been convicted of committing heinous crimes”; rather, his executive order was “based on a flawed system that has proven to be an endless cycle of court proceedings as well as ineffective, unjust and expensive.” The moratorium, imposed pending the results of a task force report on capital punishment in Pennsylvania, resulted in political pushback.

State Rep. Ron Marsico, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said he would hold hearings on the importance of the death penalty. “I want to give advocates of both sides of the issue, prosecutors, law enforcement officials, and legislators an open and fair discussion about capital punishment, and I want to make certain the stories of the victims are not forgotten,” he stated in March 2015.

A challenge to the moratorium was filed in the state Supreme Court by Philadelphia District Attorney R. Seth Williams. The substance of the petition was an assertion that Governor Wolf had overstepped his constitutional bounds by issuing reprieves without a set expiration date, and that such reprieves must be issued individually based on the merits of each prisoner’s case rather than as a blanket moratorium.

Williams was joined by the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, which filed an amicus brief in support of the petition. Aside from echoing Williams’ arguments, the DA’s association claimed that by removing the threat of a death sentence, the ability of prosecutors to reach plea agreements might be compromised. Further, prosecutors felt the moratorium may unfavorably color the death penalty in the eyes of judges and jurors.

Nevertheless, on December 21, 2015, the state’s high court rejected those arguments and unanimously upheld Wolf’s moratorium on capital punishment. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court wrote, “[A]t the time the reprieve power was adopted in the 1790 Constitution, the Governor’s authority to issue a reprieve was not understood as being limited to granting reprieves with a specific end date or for a purpose relating only to the prisoner’s unique circumstances, but rather encompassed any temporary postponement of sentence.” See: Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Williams, 129 A.3d 1199 (Pa. 2015).

While Republican leaders sought to demonize Governor Wolf for imposing the moratorium, the state legislature had established a bipartisan task force in 2011 to study the death penalty and whether it can be administered legally and effectively. The task force was supposed to issue a final report in December 2013, but the deadline was extended. Wolf said the moratorium will remain in effect until he has reviewed the task force’s report.

“The Pennsylvania Senate has recognized the need for the commonwealth to examine the capital punishment system,” stated Shawn Nolan, chief of the Philadelphia Federal Defender’s Capital Habeas Unit. “In light of the ongoing bipartisan state legislative commission, and given the well-documented problems with Pennsylvania’s death penalty, the governor’s decision to grant a reprieve and issue a moratorium is appropriate.”

The task force’s report is expected to be released by the end of 2016.

Sources:,,,, Philadelphia Enquirer,,,

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Williams