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Friday, February 23, 2024 | Back issues
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Philly DA Fights Death-|Penalty Block in Penn.

HARRISBURG, Pa. (CN) - Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf's death-penalty moratorium is both illegal and unconstitutional, the district attorney for Philadelphia told the state Supreme Court.

District Attorney Seth Williams filed the petition to keep the state on track to execute convicted murderer Terrance Williams on March 4, 2015.

Terrance Williams was a high school star quarterback in Philadelphia who was sentenced to death in 1986 for killing a 56-year-old man.

The inmate won a reprieve after the Democratic Gov. Wolf took office Jan. 20, 2015, and quickly imposed a moratorium on the state's death penalty.

Wolf's Republican predecessor, Tom Corbett, had signed the death warrant for Terrance Williams in his final days in office.

The new governor claims the reprieve is set until specific concerns have been addressed and questions answered. Wolf has said the moratorium will remain in place until a legislative task force studying the effectiveness of capital punishment since 2011 issues its report.

But DA Williams says that the governor missed the mark in characterizing his "lawless act" as a reprieve, saying it "is not within the constitutional powers of the governor, usurps judicial review of criminal judgments, and is in direct violation of his duty to faithfully execute Pennsylvania law under Article IV, § 2."

"It is unconstitutional, illegal, and should be declared null and void by this court," the DA's petition says.

King's Bench review is "highly warranted" for a case of this "extraordinary," nature, the DA added.

"Never before has a sitting governor purported to negate a criminal penalty in an entire class of cases," the petition states. "As shown below, this act depends on the governor's personal belief that Pennsylvania's judicial system has failed to carry out its constitutional duty to the governor's personal satisfaction."

In a statement on his filing, DA Williams added that the Pennsylvania Constitution "does not allow the governor to satisfy his own personal opinions by halting a capital murderer's sentence that was authorized by state statute, imposed by a unanimous Philadelphia jury, and upheld by state and federal courts."

The petition goes through the details of the Terrance Williams murder case in exacting detail.

DA Williams noted that "the constitutional role of the governor is to execute the law, not sabotage it."

Since the U.S. Supreme Court restored the death penalty in 1976, Pennsylvania has executed only three people, and those three inmates all voluntarily had given up their appeals.

The state's last execution was carried out over 15 years ago in 1999. Since then, inmates on death row have been able to win delays.

Since Pennsylvania state law does not have a time limit on the length of a reprieve, inmates can sit on death row for decades.

DA Williams emphasized that Pennsylvania law designed reprieves "to be limited in their duration and purpose."

"They exist to temporarily permit the examination of last-minute evidence or legal claims," the DA said in a statement.

There are many theories as to why Pennsylvania fails to carry out executions. Some attribute it opposition in federal 3rd Circuit, or aggressive tactics from lawyers who defend people on death row. Others point to the number of stayed or overturned death sentences as a result of DNA evidence or adequate representation at trial.

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