Pennsylvania Supreme Court to weigh Wolf's death-penalty moratorium

Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA — Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf's moratorium on executions, which has angered law-enforcement groups and energized death penalty foes, is the focus of a hearing before the state's highest court that will probe the constitutional issues.

The case revolves around condemned prisoner Terrance Williams, whose scheduled March execution for the tire-iron beating death of another Philadelphia man more than 30 years ago was canceled by the first of three reprieves that Wolf's office says he has granted since February.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams challenged the moratorium in court within days after it was announced. His office contends that it is "flagrantly unconstitutional" and amounts to the improper use of a reprieve to indefinitely suspend a death sentence for a defendant who has run out of legal options.

"There is no remaining legal remedy available to (the) defendant. He received exhaustive state and federal review. He sought pardon or commutation and it was denied. There is nothing legitimate left to pursue and no remedy to wait for," the district attorney's office argued.

Wolf has said he intends to continue granting reprieves until a legislative panel completes an overdue study of capital punishment in Pennsylvania. His lawyers argue that the state constitution gives the governor "express and unconditional power" to grant reprieves.

"The courts have no cause under Pennsylvania law to interfere with this exercise of executive power granted by the people of the commonwealth solely to their governor," they say in court papers.

Lawyers for both sides will make oral arguments Thursday in Philadelphia.

Wolf also granted reprieves to death-row inmates Hubert Lester Michael Jr., convicted of murdering a 16-year-old girl in York County in 1993, and Robert Diamond of Bucks County.

A similar challenge, filed by state Attorney General Kathleen Kane in the Michael case, is pending in the state Supreme Court.

Pennsylvania has executed only three people since capital punishment was made legal in the 1970s and all three had voluntarily given up their appeals.

There were 182 people on death row in Pennsylvania as of Sept. 1.