Shortly after taking office, Governor Tom Wolf issued a moratorium on executions in the Key Stone State. While this moratorium is in effect, the commonwealth is not carrying out capital punishment. Still, Governor Wolf will not be in office forever.
In Pennsylvania, governors may serve two consecutive four-year terms in office before stepping aside for at least one term. Governor Wolf’s second term ends on January 17, 2023. If his successor has a different view of capital punishment, executions could restart in Pennsylvania shortly thereafter.
A change in the law
Pennsylvania prison officials last executed a death row inmate in 1999. Before the current moratorium on executions, delays in carrying out capital punishment were largely due to both appeals and logistical issues.
The governor’s moratorium is a temporary measure. For the commonwealth to do away with capital punishment permanently, a change in the law is necessary. This change could come from a judicial ruling or more likely from legislative action. Colorado, for example, took this approach in 2020 when its legislature voted to abolish the death penalty.
A robust defense
Until capital punishment is no longer possible in Pennsylvania, prosecutors are likely to push for it in certain cases. Because of the dire consequences of a conviction, it is advisable to mount a robust defense. Part of this defense, of course, may involve working with an attorney who has extensive experience with death penalty cases.
Ultimately, even if executions eventually resume, there may be options for avoiding the death penalty. These may include a pardon, clemency or commutation of the death sentence.