Applause for Pennsylvania’s death penalty moratorium
The Governor’s action is part of a growing movement to abandon the practice. Pennsylvania is the fourth state in four years to impose a moratorium on the death penalty, in addition to six states that have abolished the practice since 2007.
In a public memorandum explaining his decition, Tom Wolf wrote that this was a campaign pledge, adding: “If the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is going to take the irrevocable step of executing a human being, its capital sentencing system must be infallible.”
A defendant should no longer be “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,” the governor argued. He added: “Pennsylvania’s sy stem is riddled with flaws, making it error prone, expensive, and anything but infallible.”
“I think Governor Wolf realizes that when you have more exonerated prisoners than executed prisoners in 30 years, the system handed to you was obviously broken,” said Nick Yarris, who was exonerated by DNA evidence after serving 21 years on Pennsylvania’s death row.
Parallel with California
According to the Death Penalty Information Center’s 2014 Year End Report, the country saw the lowest number of death sentences handed down in 40 years and the lowest number of executions in 20 years. Though California still houses the largest death row in the country, a Field Poll last year found that support for the death penalty was falling rapidly, with voters’ support at its lowest point in half a century.
“I applaud the decision by Governor Wolf to join the growing number of states putting a stop to this costly and broken system,” said Matt Cherry, executive director of Death Penalty Focus, a World Coalition member organisation based in California. “The writing is on the wall: it’s time for California to follow suit and officially abolish the death penalty.”
The parallels between Pennsylvania’s death penalty system and California’s system are undeniable. Pennsylvania has spent over $350 million on the death penalty over a period of time during which only 3 people have been executed and it currently houses the 5th largest death row in the country. Similarly, California could save $130 million a year by abolishing the death penalty, which has been on hold since 2006. This has placed California in first place for the largest death row in the nation.
District attorney challenges moratorium
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, however, filed a challenge to governor Tom Wolf’s moratorium on 18 February, on legal and constitutional grounds.
The “Free Mumia!” French Support Group, also a World Coalition member organization, highlighted that Seth Williams was “an ardent and active defender of capital punishment”, including through his action to maintain Mumia Abu-Jamal’s death sentenced through years of court proceedings. The black activist and journalist is no longer on death row but remains in prison.
In challenging the Pennsylvania moratorium, Seth Williams is also seeking the execution of Terrance Williams, scheduled for 4 March. This would be the first execution in the State since 1999.