Gov. Tom Wolf speaks during a news conference at Caln Elementary School on Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015, in Thorndale.
Gov. Tom Wolf's decision to place a moratorium on Pennsylvania's death penalty halted executions, fulfilled a campaign promise and sparked outrage among the state's law enforcement agencies.
Wolf issued a temporary reprieve on execution warrants until he reviews an upcoming report on the state's death penalty, he said Friday. In a memo, he wrote that “both my duty as governor and my conscience require that I proceed with great caution, and with all relevant facts at hand.”
The decision irked police, prosecutors and statehouse Republicans, who accused Wolf of injecting personal views into the system. The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association is reviewing its legal options against the decision, said Richard Long, executive director.
“We believe that the action they're taking is illegitimate,” Long said. “We're going to do everything in our power to compel the governor to uphold the law and its current structure.”
The Pennsylvania State Troopers Association noted the case of alleged cop killer Eric Frein, accused of gunning down state police Cpl. Byron Dickson and wounding Trooper Alex Douglass in September.
“Gov. Wolf's decision today is a travesty, because it prevents the commonwealth and the family of Cpl. Dickson from securing the penalty that is deserved,” the association said.
Though the state hasn't carried out an execution in 16 years, Pennsylvania's prison system houses 186 death row inmates.
Since the Legislature re- authorized capital punishment in 1978, governors have signed 434 death warrants. Three executions have happened since then.
“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. “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.”
The five-page memo on his decision rattled off concerns including racial bias, a fallible appellate system and lack of legal defense resources. Such problems were motivating factors behind the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Commission on Capital Punishment, formed by Senate resolution in 2011.
Wolf said the moratorium would stand “until this commission has produced its recommendation and all concerns are addressed satisfactorily.” He will not sign execution warrants, his office confirmed. His aides would not speculate when the report will be released.
Marc Bookman, director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation in Philadelphia, called Wolf's decision appropriate.
“It seems reasonable, when so many problems have been well-documented, to take a very careful look before we take the most extreme step of executing someone,” Bookman said.
State Rep. Ron Marsico, R-Dauphin County, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and supporter of a “strong, fair death penalty,” called Wolf's action unauthorized.
“If he wants to repeal the death penalty, he should come to the Legislature and seek that repeal,” Marsico said in a news release. “I promise, though, that I will use the power of the House Judiciary Committee to oppose any such action. The victims and the surviving families of those victimized deserve nothing less.”
Wolf's announcement coincided with his granting a temporary reprieve to Terrance Williams, who was scheduled to be executed March 4. Williams was sentenced in 1986 in Philadelphia for the murder of Amos Norwood two years earlier.
Pennsylvania's last execution occurred in 1999. Gary Heidnik received the death penalty in 1988 for murdering two women he held captive and raped in his home. For his last meal, Heidnik drank two cups of black coffee and ate four slices of pizza. He was declared dead 29 minutes after the execution's 10 p.m. scheduled time.
In September, former Gov. Tom Corbett issued a stay to Hubert Michael Jr., sentenced to death for the 1994 murder of Trista Eng, 16, in York County. The Department of Corrections had difficulty obtaining the three-part chemical cocktail used for lethal injection.
Conditions and confinement will not change for death row inmates while the moratorium is in place, the governor's office said.
Housing the inmates on death row costs about $8 million a year. Capital case inmates cost about $43,000 to house annually, about $10,000 more than other inmates because of policies requiring extra guards when moving death row inmates from their cells to other places in prison.
Following Wolf's announcement, state Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery County, introduced legislation to repeal the death penalty. He called capital cases “a profound waste” of tax dollars and pointed to instances in which death row inmates have been exonerated.
“It is time for the United States to join the rest of the civilized world in ending the barbaric practice of having our government kill people,” Leach said.