03/05/2015 10:51 am ET

Pennsylvania Governor's Death Penalty Moratorium Under Fire


A Pennsylvania district attorney has filed a lawsuit with the state Supreme Court over Gov. Tom Wolf's (D) moratorium on the death penalty as legislators are pledging to review the capital sentencing system.

Organized by the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, lawyers and lawmakers gathered in the Capitol Rotunda in Harrisburg on Wednesday -- the same day the state had been set to execute its first inmate in 16 years -- to criticize Wolf's Feb. 13 moratorium, local WFMZ News reports.

"I supported the governor in his election, but I'm disappointed that during the decision making process on the issue of the death penalty he did not consult with district attorneys or consult with the families of victims whose lives have been torn apart by the people who have been sentenced to death for their actions," Berks County District Attorney John Adams said at the news conference.

Wolf granted a reprieve to Terrance Williams, who as a teenager was convicted of beating a man to death with a tire iron, then robbing him. In his February statement issuing the reprieve and de facto moratorium, Wolf said his actions were not because he doubted Williams' guilt, "but because the capital punishment system has significant and widely recognized defects."

The governor went on to cite a 2003 report by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s Committee on Racial and Gender Bias in the Justice System that found “strong indications that Pennsylvania’s capital system does not operate in an evenhanded manner” where gender and racial bias is concerned.

The power of governors to grant pardons, reprieves or clemency varies in the 32 death penalty states. In Pennsylvania, the governor can only grant clemency with a majority recommendation from the State Pardon Board and also reserves the power to reject the recommendation. Reprieves, meanwhile, do not require input from the Board of Pardons.

Seth Williams argued in his motion to the state Supreme Court that reprieves are only meant to to allow the chance for last-minute evidence or legal claims to be considered; Terrance Williams, he said, has no new claims.

Under the governor's "exclusive authority" outlined by the state's constitution, there's no time limit on how long a reprieve can last.

Neither Wolf's nor Williams' offices responded to The Huffington Post's requests for comment.

State Rep. Ron Marsico (R-Dauphin), who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said in a Wednesday statement that though he agrees that those sentenced to death "are entitled to a careful review of their cases, those cases also need finality. The families of the silenced victims need finality. We must remember the victims who no longer have a voice in this process.”

Marsico pledged to schedule hearings hosted by his committee to discuss the importance of the death penalty and its application in the state.

“I want to give advocates of both sides of the issue, prosecutors, law enforcement officials and legislators an open and fair discussion about capital punishment. And, I want to make certain that the stories of the victims are not forgotten in this process,” Marsico said. “We will let the people of Pennsylvania decide what they believe about this issue.”

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, it could take a year or longer for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to hear the case and reach a decision.


  • Lethal Injection
    Over 1360 people have been executed by lethal injection in the U.S. During the procedure, drugs are administered through several intravenous drips. Until 2010, most states used a three-drug combination: an anesthetic (pentobarbital or sodium thiopental) to put the convict to sleep, a paralytic agent (pancuronium bromide) to paralyze the muscle system, and a drug to stop the heart (potassium chloride). Now, European pharmaceutical companies have refused to sell drugs to the U.S. for use in lethal injections, requiring states to find new, unpredictable drug alternatives.
  • Gas Chamber
    Gas chambers, like this one pictured at the former Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, Missouri were first used in the U.S. in 1924. Since then, 11 people have been executed by this method. Arizona and Missouri allow inmates to opt for the gas chamber over lethal injection and Wyoming can use it as a backup method if lethal injection is found unconstitutional. During the procedure, an inmate is sealed inside an airtight chamber pumped with toxic hydrogen cyanide gas. Oxygen starvation ultimately leads to death, but the inmate does not lose consciousness immediately.

    "The person is unquestionably experiencing pain and extreme anxiety..." Dr. Richard Traystman of John Hopkins University School of Medicine, told the non-profit Death Penalty Information Center. "The sensation is similar to the pain felt by a person during a heart attack, where essentially the heart is being deprived of oxygen."
  • Electric Chair
    The first electric chair was used in 1890. Today, inmates can choose electrocution over lethal injection in eight states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. During the procedure, electrodes attached to the inmate's body deliver a shock of electricity. Sometimes more than one jolt is required. U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan described an electric chair execution in his dissent in Glass v. Louisiana (1985), according to the Death Penalty Information Center: The prisoner's eyeballs sometimes pop out and rest on [his] cheeks. The prisoner often defecates, urinates, and vomits blood and drool. The body turns bright red as its temperature rises, and the prisoner's flesh swells and his skin stretches to the point of breaking. Sometimes the prisoner catches fire....Witnesses hear a loud and sustained sound like bacon frying, and the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh permeates the chamber.
  • Hanging
    Hanging was used as the primary method of execution until the electric chair's invention in 1890. Today, hanging can be used as a secondary method in Washington, New Hampshire and Delaware. Three hangings have been conducted since 1977. Death is typically caused by dislocation of the vertebrae or asphyxiation, but if the rope is too long, the inmate can be decapitated. If too short, the inmate can take up to 45 minutes to die.
  • Death By Firing Squad
    This Old West-style execution method dates back to the invention of firearms. It was used most recently in the U.S. in 2010 on inmate Ronnie Lee Gardner. Utah is the only state that allows it today, and Oklahoma permits its use if both lethal injection and electrocution are found unconstitutional. In a typical scenario in the U.S., the inmate is strapped to a chair. Five anonymous marksmen stand 20 feet away, aim rifles at the convict's heart, and shoot. One rifle is loaded with blanks.
  • Beheading
    Wikimedia Commons
    Decapitation has been used in capital punishment for thousands of years. Above is the chopping block used for beheadings at the Tower of London. Today, decapitation is still used as a method of execution in Saudi Arabia.
  • Guillotine
    Kauko via Wikimedia Commons
    Invented in France in the late 18th century during the French Revolution, the guillotine was designed to be a humane execution method. It severed the head more quickly and efficiently than beheading by sword. Above, the painting shows Marie Antoinette's execution in 1793.
  • Crucifixion
    Piotrus via Wikimedia Commons
    Crucifixion goes back to around the 6th century BC, and still is used today in Sudan. For this method of execution, a person is tied or nailed to a cross and left to hang. Death is slow and painful, ranging from hours to days.
  • Live Burial
    Antoine Wiertz/Wikimedia Commons
    Execution by burial goes back to 260 BC in ancient China, when 400,000 were reportedly buried alive by the Qin dynasty. More modern examples include Japanese soldiers burying Chinese civilians alive during the Nanking massacre. Germans also buried Jews in Ukraine and Belarus during World War II. Depending on the size of the coffin, it can take anywhere from ten minutes to multiple hours for a person to run out of oxygen.
  • Slow Slicing
    Carter Cutlery/Wikimedia Commons
    Also called "death by a thousand cuts," this execution method was used in China from roughly AD 900 until it was banned in 1905. The slicing took place for up to three days. It was used as punishment for treason and killing one's parents.
  • Boiling Alive
    MCT via Getty Images
    Death by boiling goes back to the first century AD, and was legal in the 16th century in England as punishment for treason. This method of execution involved placing a convict inside a large cauldron containing boiling liquid such as oil or water.
  • Blowing From A Gun
    For this method, used around the world from the 16th century into the 20th century, a cannon was fired while a convict was strapped to its mouth.
  • Being Burnt Alive
    Pat Canova via Getty Images
    Records show societies burning criminals alive as far back as 18 BC under Hammurabi's Code of Laws in Babylonia. It has been used as punishment for sexual deviancy, witchcraft, treason and heresy.
  • Hanged, Drawn And Quartered
    Wikimedia Commons
    A punishment for men convicted of high treason, "hanging, drawing and quartering" was used in England from the 13th to 19th century. Men were dragged behind a horse, then hanged, disemboweled, beheaded, and chopped or torn apart into four pieces.
  • Stoning
    Wikimedia Commons
    This ancient method of execution continues to be used as punishment for adultery today.
  • Crushing By Elephant
    Wikimedia Commons
    This method was commonly used for many centuries in South and Southeast Asia, where an elephant would crush and dismember convicts.
  • Flaying
    Michelangelo/Wikimedia Commons
    Records show flaying, the removal of skin from the body, used back in the 9th century BC.
  • Impalement
    Wikimedia Commons
    Records show this execution practice used as far back as the 18th century BC, where a person is penetrated through the center of their body with a stake or pole.