Supreme Court agrees to hear challenge to death penalty moratorium

By Jim Boyle | Mar 5, 2015

HARRISBURG - The state Supreme Court has agreed to hear Philadelphia District

Attorney Seth Williams' case against Gov. Tom Wolf's death penalty moratorium, in a decision announced Tuesday.

The court denied Williams' request to expedite the matter, meaning that the process of testimony, discovery and documentation could take more than a year before a decision is reached.

Williams argues that the reprieve is an unconstitutional takeover of powers that belong to the legislature, the courts, and the pardons board – and because it sends a troubling message to the victims of crime and the citizens of Pennsylvania.

“Just weeks ago, Governor Wolf took an oath to faithfully execute his duties in accordance with the constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” Williams said in a statement. “Our constitution does not allow the governor to satisfy his own personal opinions by halting a capital murderer’s sentence that was authorized by state statute, imposed by a unanimous Philadelphia jury, and upheld by state and federal courts.”

Unlike some states, Pennsylvania does not grant the governor unlimited at-will power to issue a moratorium or pardon or commute any sentence of death or punishment, Williams says.

He cites portions of Article IV of the Pennsylvania constitution, which states that “no pardon shall be granted, nor sentence commuted, except on the recommendation in writing of a majority of the Board of Pardons, and, in the case of a sentence of death or life imprisonment, on the unanimous recommendation in writing of the Board of Pardons, after full hearing in open session, upon due public notice.”

Williams' primary point of contention is the reprieve granted to convicted murderer Terrance Williams. Convicted for the 1984 killing of a man by beating him with a tire iron, Terrance Williams’ execution was scheduled for March 4.

Wolf issued the reprieve on Feb. 13, saying it will remain in effect until he has received and reviewed a report by the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Commission on Capital Punishment. His office says the reprieves are not commutations and the conditions and confinement for death row inmates will not change.

“Terrance Williams has exhausted all of his appeals, including those to the Pennsylvania and United States Supreme Courts,” Williams said. “He committed robberies and burglaries, broke into the home of an elderly woman on Christmas Eve with a rifle and threatened to blow her ‘f—ing head off,’ and brutally bludgeoned to death two gay men so he could steal their belongings.”

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