Gov. Tom Wolf’s declaration this month of a moratorium on the death penalty has drawn a great deal of reaction from elected officials and prison reform advocates.
Many think the governor’s decision was the right thing to do, especially in light of research that shows racial and economic bias when the state’s harshest penalty is imposed. Others said the governor should open the subject up for debate if he wants to change the laws.
“I want to commend Gov. Tom Wolf for taking the brave step of declaring a moratorium on the death penalty in Pennsylvania,” state Sen. Vincent Hughes said. Hughes represents the 7th senatorial district, which includes parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery County. He is also the Democratic chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“This is something that I have supported for many years,” he said. “I have deep concerns about how the death penalty is being applied, especially as it concerns both racial and economic bias. There have been numerous studies that question the fairness in the capital punishment system.”
Hughes referenced a recent study by the American Civil Liberties Union that found Pennsylvania had one of the highest percentages in the nation of people of color on death row. The same study, Hughes said, found African-American defendants were 38 percent more likely to face the death penalty. Right now in Pennsylvania there are 183 men and three women on death row.
“Another study by the Innocence Project found that too many defendants face barriers when trying to access tools like DNA testing,” Hughes said. “This is best epitomized by the case of Nick Yarris, who served 21 years on Pennsylvania’s death row for a crime he did not commit. Like many defendants, he did not have access to technology that could have proved his innocence much earlier.
“I believe that it is completely appropriate for the governor to exercise his powers in this regard as he is the one who must sign the death warrant and ultimately implement this final punishment.”
Ann Schwartzman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, which is on record as opposing the death penalty, agrees with Wolf that there are too many outstanding questions.
“Day after day we hear of innocent individuals released from death row,” Schwartzman said. “Unlike other sentences, there is no reversible action when someone is executed. The research indicates that this measure is not a deterrent to others yet costs the commonwealth millions in taxpayer dollars. We know that the loss of a loved one can never be made up by more loss. Since there is a study to examine capital punishment in the commonwealth that was established by the legislature through Senate Resolution 6, the logical move is to be prudent. This examination is needed to make sure the commonwealth is acting in a reasonable way by using all the information available.”
Wolf announced the moratorium last week. He said it would remain in effect until he has received and reviewed the forthcoming report of a state task force on capital punishment. The governor said he needs an opportunity to address all concerns satisfactorily. He said the moratorium is in no way to express sympathy for those convicted of heinous crimes and are incarcerated on death row.
“Pennsylvania’s system is riddled with flaws, making it error-prone, expensive and anything but infallible,” Wolf said. “Numerous studies have called into question the accuracy and fundamental fairness of Pennsylvania’s capital sentencing system. These studies suggest inherent biases affect the makeup of death row. 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 racial minority and particularly where the victim of the crime was [white].”
District Attorney Seth Williams said Wolf’s declaration was an injustice to the residents of the commonwealth who support the death penalty’s use in appropriate cases.
“If the governor wants to be a man of his convictions, he should debate this issue publicly and try to persuade the legislature and the people to change the law,” Williams said. “The governor’s action was an injustice to the citizens of this state, who support the death penalty in limited and appropriate cases and to victims of crime, who deserve to see justice carried out as the laws provide.”
Sandra Thompson, a former
York County prosecutor-
turned-defense attorney, said there is simply too much evidence which shows the state’s death penalty system is flawed.
“After seeing first-hand the havoc that violent crimes wreak on our community, I understand the need to hold individuals who actually commit these crimes accountable. However, there is considerable evidence demonstrating that Pennsylvania’s death penalty is deeply flawed,” Thompson said. “There is no justice with wrongful convictions. Six men have been released from death row in this state after evidence of their innocence emerged, including Nicholas Yarris, who served 22 years in prison before being freed due to newly-tested DNA evidence that showed he was not the killer. Halting executions while we address doubts about the fairness and accuracy of the system is the responsible thing to do.”
The Pennsylvania District Attorney’s Association said in a statement released after the governor’s announcement death penalty cases are exhaustively examined and he doesn’t have the right to nullify a jury’s verdict or a unanimous sentence.
“Public safety is served when the most cold-blooded, heinous killers are publicly convicted and sentenced to death,” the statement read. “The death penalty is sought in rare instances and only when the facts of a case meet the narrowest requirements by law. No district attorney takes pleasure in pursuing a death penalty case. We must and do make those decisions based on the facts of the case, the ethical structure of our profession and the understanding that the death penalty is reserved for only the worst of the worst cold-blooded killers as defined by law.”