(CN) - Pennsylvania's newly elected governor imposed a moratorium on the state's death penalty Friday, declaring it "anything but infallible."
Governor Tom Wolf's decision surprised many in the state capital of Harrisburg, as capital punishment had not been an issue in his 2014 gubernatorial campaign to unseat the incumbent Tom Corbett. In fact, his campaign website, which is still active, focuses mainly on the state's economy, job creation and education.
Wolf said as currently wielded, the state's capital sentencing system is "riddled with flaws, making it error prone, expensive and anything but infallible."
He said the moratorium will remain in effect at least until he receives a report from a legislative commission that has been study the administration of the death penalty in the state since 2011.
"If we are to continue to administer the death penalty, we must take further steps to ensure that defendants have appropriate counsel at every stage of their prosecution," the governor said.
But others questioned not only the wisdom of the moratorium, but whether the governor has a right to impose one at all.
"He has rejected the decisions of juries that wrestled with the facts and the law before unanimously imposing the death penalty," the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association said in a written statement. "[He's] disregarded a long line of decisions made by Pennsylvania and federal judges, ignored the will of the Legislature, and ultimately turned his back on the silenced victims of cold-blooded killers."
According to the association, Wolf's decision is "a misuse of his power and ignores the law."
Not so, said Timothy Lewis, a former Judge for the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Lewis, who is now counsel at Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis in Philadelphia, said Wolf reached out to him late last year and asked him to prepare a legal analysis regarding his authority to impose a death penalty moratorium.
Lewis said he submitted his completed analysis last month, shortly before Wolf's inauguration.
"I concluded that Pennsylvania law requires the governor to issue execution warrants; that the Pennsylvania Constitution, Article IV, Section 9(a), gives the governor exclusive authority and wide discretion to grant reprieves; that this reprieve power is the only constitutional basis for instituting a moratorium; that the governor could not grant either standing or future reprieves; and that, accordingly, a Pennsylvania governor may implement a moratorium only by first issuing execution warrants and then granting reprieves," Lewis said in a release posted on the governor's website.
"In summary, I concluded that if a governor believed it would be in the interests of the Commonwealth to issue a moratorium by granting reprieves for the purpose of studying the fairness and effectiveness of the administration of the death penalty, this would be a proper exercise of his or her authority under the Pennsylvania Constitution," Lewis said.
Friday morning, Wolf took the first step to act on his moratorium by granting a temporary reprieve to Terrance Williams, who was scheduled to be executed on March 4, 2015. Wolf said he will grant a reprieve - not a commutation - in each future instance in which an execution for a death row inmate is scheduled.
Pennsylvania's most recent execution occurred in 1999, when Gary Heidnik was put to death for killing two women he'd imprisoned in his Philadelphia home. At present, there are 183 men and three women on the state's death row.
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