Pennsylvania Supreme Court Unanimously Upholds Governor's Moratorium on Executions

In a unanimous decision issued December 21, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld Gov. Tom Wolf’s (pictured) imposition of a moratorium on executions while he awaits the results of a legislative commission’s report on Pennsylvania’s death penalty. On February 13, 2015, Wolf issued a temporary reprieve to Terrance Williams and announced that he would put all executions on hold. At that time, he said that Pennsylvania’s “capital punishment system has significant and widely recognized defects” and was “ineffective, unjust, and expensive.” Prosecutors challenged the governor’s authority to issue reprieves of indefinite duration that were based upon systemic concerns. The Court disagreed. Writing for the Court, Justice Max Baer said, “at 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.” Williams’ case is also pending before the U.S. Supreme Court on a separate issue - whether former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille should have recused himself from hearing the appeal of a lower court decision reversing Williams’ death sentence because of prosecutorial misconduct by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office while Castille was District Attorney. Castille had personally authorized Williams’ prosecution in his role as D.A. and had campaigned for judge based upon his record of having sent more than 40 defendants to death row. The state appeals court overturned the trial court’s decision and reinstated Williams’ death sentence. Two judicial groups and six legal organizations, including the American Bar Association and the American Academy of Appellate Lawyers, recently filed amicus briefs supporting Williams’ position that Castille should have recused himself and that his participation tainted the court’s decision to return Williams to death row.

(N. Brambila, “State high court upholds Gov. Wolf’s moratorium on executions,” The Reading Eagle, December 21, 2015; C. McDaniel, “Court Backs Pennsylvania Governor’s Suspension Of Death Penalty,” BuzzFeed News, December 21, 2015; L. McLellan, “Amici Critical of Castille in Case by Death-Row Inmate,” Legal Intelligencer, December 9, 2015.) Read the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision in Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Terrance Williams. See Death Penalty in Flux and U.S. Supreme Court.