HARRISBURG - The governor’s death penalty moratorium, announced last week, brings attention to an obscure group that has been quietly examining the use of the capital punishment in Pennsylvania for three years.
In his announcement, Gov. Tom Wolf said he will reprieve all convicts facing execution until a death penalty task force finishes its work. About half the members of that group had unsuccessfully asked former Gov. Tom Corbett for the same moratorium.
Critics have lambasted Wolf for removing the ultimate penalty as a form of justice needed to punish the worst criminals. Supporters say it's reasonable to stay executions pending the task force's findings.
Pennsylvania has executed three people since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978; the last was in 1999. All three were convicts who abandoned their appeals and voluntarily went to their deaths.
The state now has 186 people on death row - fifth-most in the nation. Pennsylvania governors have signed 434 death warrants, but almost all have been halted by the courts. One inmate has received a date of execution six times, with each being postponed by judicial intervention.
The log jam was one reason behind the task force's creation in 2011. The group faced a daunting charge of considering 17 facets of the capital punishment including whether the state’s use of lethal injection is constitutional, the number of mentally ill or mentally handicapped people on death row, how a convict's race factors into a death sentence, the death penalty's costs, and the risk of executing innocent people.
It was supposed to finish its work by the end of 2013. One lawmaker leading the group says it will more likely be the end of this year - two years behind schedule.
The delays are due, in part, to foot-dragging by some agencies holding information that the task force needed in order to weigh costs and benefits of the death penalty, said state Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery County, a staunch opponent of capital punishment.
Leach declined to say who those foot-draggers were, but he added that the task force now has the information that it needs.
Sen. John Rafferty, R-Montgomery County, has questioned whether Wolf is putting too much weight on the work of the task force, a group that he notes has been “questioned by some as to whether it is unfairly skewed towards death penalty opponents.” Rafferty, an attorney who spent three years in the criminal division of the Attorney General’s office, was in the minority when the Senate voted 38-12 to approved the creation of the task force.
But Leach said anyone informed about the issue has strong opinions, one way or another. The suggestion that the task force is skewed, he said, is “factually incorrect."
The task force is composed of two Republican and two Democratic senators, along with a 25-member advisory committee.
The advisers include some death penalty opponents as well as victims’ advocates and prosecutors including Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, who this week week took steps to undo Wolf’s moratorium.
Williams filed a legal challenge asking the state Supreme Court to determine if Wolf over-reached his authority in staying the sentences.
Unlike some other states, Pennsylvania doesn’t give its governor broad power to commute death sentences, Williams argued. He points to language in the state Constitution, which directs that pardons must come from the Board of Pardons.
Of course, Wolf knows lawyers, too.
His office released a statement from former federal Appeals Court Judge Timothy Lewis, arguing that the governor does, in fact, have the authority to issue the moratorium.
Lewis said Wolf can legally manage the moratorium by issuing individual reprieves each time a convict is due to be put to death.
As the Supreme Court contemplates that legal question, Wolf's moratorium at least guarantees that the death penalty task force and its findings, no matter what they are, have everyone's attention.