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Pa. Gov. Tom Wolf Announces Moratorium on Executions

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By Mark Wilson, Esq. on February 23, 2015 12:09 PM

A Pennsylvania divided against itself cannot stand! On February 13, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (not the author of The Bonfire of the Vanities) announced a commonwealth-wide moratorium on the death penalty, which he called "error-prone, expensive, and anything but infallible."

This move earned the ire of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association and now, a lawsuit filed by Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams.

That All Depends on Your Definition of 'Moratorium'

On Wednesday, Williams filed an emergency petition for extraordinary relief with the state supreme court requesting the court to review Wolf's moratorium, which Williams claims is not within Wolf's power to order.

The legality of the moratorium all depends on how you characterize it, though. Wolf's press release said that he "will grant a reprieve -- not a commutation -- in each future instance in which an execution for a death row inmate is scheduled, establishing an effective moratorium on the death penalty in Pennsylvania." No one disagrees that Wolf has the power to issue reprieves, so if he's making it a policy to grant reprieves ... is that somehow unconstitutional?

Williams says it is because the governor hasn't established an end date for when the reprieve will cease, though in his press release, Wolf said the moratorium "will remain in effect until [the state senate's capital punishment advisory] commission has produced its recommendation and all concerns are addressed satisfactorily."

If this is supposed to be an expression of an end-date for all reprieves, Williams is right to point out it's pretty mushy: "[T]he supposed reprieve is not temporary, but permanent, unless or until the Governor decides that his own personal level of satisfaction has been met," the petition says. "The alleged reprieve is not for the purpose of allowing the defendant to pursue some remaining legal remedy (of course none exists), but for the purpose of pursuing an abstract goal of 'satisfying' the Governor."

Perfect Timing

The timing of this moratorium, or reprieve-a-thon, or whatever it is, isn't a coincidence. Just last month, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a lethal injection case from Oklahoma that could upend execution methods in states that use a modified three-drug cocktail (which is most of them). States can either hurry up and execute as many people as possible before the Court decides, or it can wait and see what the Court will do. (In any event, the Court is on a rampage of staying executions, so states would be prudent to try for the latter.)

If you think it's weird for a district attorney to sue the governor like this, it actually isn't: A similar thing happened in 1994 when then-Gov. Robert Casey (yes, that Casey) refused to sign death warrants for two convicts, resulting in a successful lawsuit to force him to do it.

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