Seth Williams, Risa Ferman Slam Tom Wolf Over PA Death Penalty Moratorium

Our new governor made the announcement on Friday.

Gov. Wolf. | Photo Credit: Jeff Fusco

Gov. Wolf. | Photo Credit: Jeff Fusco

On Friday, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf — less than a month into his new job — issued a moratorium on the death penalty in Pennsylvania, saying that it is “error prone, expensive and anything but infallible.” (You can read the full memorandum below.) The Philadelphia and Montgomery County district attorneys were quick to issue statements condemning Wolf’s decision.

Pennsylvania has 186 people on death row — 183 men and three women — according to the Department of Corrections. The last person executed was deranged killer Gary Heidnik, who was put to death in 1999. Heidnik was one of three people executed in Pennsylvania since the Supreme Court revived the death penalty in the United States in 1976.

Here’s Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams on the Pennsylvania death penalty moratorium. Williams claims that Wolf’s move was actually “unlawful”:

The people who are most grateful for this “moratorium” on capital punishment are the guiltiest, cruelest, most vicious killers on death row. Most other murderers do not get the death penalty, and if they did they will likely have the sentence reversed on appeal.

Terrance Williams must be one of those grateful killers today. He is one of the few capital murderers in Pennsylvania who has lost all his appeals, all the way up to both the Pennsylvania and United States Supreme Courts. And there is not a shred of doubt about his guilt. Even his own lawyers don’t claim he is innocent.

I am weary of this murderer’s effort to portray himself as a victim. He has committed robberies and burglaries, he has broken into the home of an elderly woman in the middle of the night, on Christmas Eve, put a rifle muzzle to her neck, and threatened to blow her “f—ing head off,” and he has brutally bludgeoned to death two older gay men in order to steal their belongings. These were not spontaneous crimes of “rage.” He planned each one in advance, he made careful efforts to cover up his involvement, and he made sure to profit.

The power to issue a reprieve exists to permit examination of last-minute evidence or legal claims that could not otherwise be reviewed. But there are no new claims here; they have been examined and reviewed and ruled on, over and over and over again. The reprieve is unlawful.

If the governor wants to be a man of his convictions, he should debate this issue publicly and try to persuade the legislature and the people to change the law. But he has no moral or legal right to nullify judicial rulings and legislative statutes. The governor’s action today was an injustice to the citizens of this state, who support the death penalty in limited and appropriate cases, to the judges who have conscientiously reviewed this case over two decades, and to victims of crime, who deserve to see justice carried out as the laws provide.

And Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman says that “we all lose” thanks to the death penalty moratorium:

Elected officials in all branches of government are entrusted with upholding the laws of our country and commonwealth. Where, as here, an elected official puts his personal opinions above the law, we all lose.

A particularly disappointing aspect of today’s dictate is that the Governor completely ignored the efforts of the District Attorneys of Pennsylvania to discuss this important matter with him.

By failing to even acknowledge our letter requesting a meeting or discussion on this serious topic, our brand new governor has communicated that he believes his personal opinions trump those of all others.

The death penalty is an extremely serious topic facing our criminal justice system and there are ongoing discussions about it. The proper place, however, to change the laws of Pennsylvania is within the legislature, not by mandate of the new executive.

I hope police and prosecutors are a part of this discussion with our new administration, and all those involved in our justice system, moving forward.

Wolf’s full moratorium: