Matthew T. Mangino, Guest Columnist
Delaware County Daily Times
February 18, 2015
Last week, Gov. Tom Wolf declared a moratorium on the death penalty in Pennsylvania. The legal authority to do so exists pursuant to Article IV, Section 9 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The governor has exclusive authority to grant reprieves and may exercise that authority for any reason — or no reason at all.
The uproar over the governor’s action is misguided. Pennsylvania has executed three men since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978. All three men waived their appeal rights and volunteered to be executed. In fact, Pennsylvania has not carried out an involuntary execution since 1962.
There are approximately 186 men and women on Pennsylvania’s death row. Three of the longest serving men—John Lesko, Michael Travaglia and Henry Fahy—each, have served more than 30 years on death row.
Wolf’s announcement of a moratorium on the death penalty suggested that the current system of capital punishment is “error-prone, expensive and anything but infallible,” the Pennsylvania District Attorney’s Association was quick to respond, “He has rejected the decisions of juries that wrestled with the facts and the law before unanimously imposing the death penalty, disregarded a long line of decisions made by Pennsylvania and federal judges, ignored the will of the Legislature, and ultimately turned his back on the silenced victims of cold-blooded killers.”
Gov. Wolf did not make this decision in a vacuum. He sought the counsel of others including a former federal judge before making his decision. “I concluded that if a governor believed it would be in the interests of the commonwealth to issue a moratorium by granting reprieves for the purpose of studying the fairness and effectiveness of the administration of the death penalty, this would be a proper exercise of his or her authority under the Pennsylvania Constitution,” said former U.S. Circuit Court Judge Timothy K. Lewis.
Wolf granted a temporary reprieve to inmate Terrance Williams who was scheduled to be executed on March 4 and Wolf will continue to grant reprieves until the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment, of which I am a member, completes its report.
Our committee was created by legislative action in 2011. The work of the committee is important and the painstaking collection and analysis of data is essential to making sound recommendations to the Legislature and the governor. The collection of data has also slowed the process down.
It is not as though executions are being carried out in other states across the country. There were 35 executions nationwide in 2014. Only eight states carried out executions. In fact three states — Texas, Missouri and Florida — were responsible for 28 of the 35 executions.
There are 32 states that have the death penalty on the books. Governors in Oregon, Colorado, Washington and Ohio have imposed moratoriums on executions. In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich canceled all seven executions scheduled for 2015.
Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a lethal injection case for the second time in seven years. In 2008, the high court upheld the constitutionality of Kentucky’s lethal injection protocol.
The new case, out of Oklahoma, was brought by inmates who claim the state execution protocol violates the Constitution’s ban against cruel and unusual punishment. The decision will be closely watched.
Gov. Wolf’s action is appropriate given the history, or lack thereof, of executions in Pennsylvania, the pending report and the Supreme Court’s decision to address lethal injection yet again.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly and George in New Castle. He is the former district attorney of Lawrence County and a member of the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released last year by McFarland and Co.
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