Capital punishment in Pennsylvania

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Capital punishment is a legal punishment in Pennsylvania .


Despite remaining a legal penalty, there have been no executions in Pennsylvania since 1999, and only three since 1976 (all occurring in the 1990s, during the governorship of Tom Ridge). In February 2015, Governor Tom Wolf announced a formal moratorium on executions that is still in effect as of January 2021. However, capital crimes are still prosecuted for and death warrants are still issued.


Prior to 1913, hanging was the common method of execution. [1] In 1834, Pennsylvania became the first state in the union to eradicate public hangings. For the following decades, each county throughout the state was in charge of carrying out private hangings within their jails. [2] 1915 saw the first use of the electric chair, two years after it was approved by the Pennsylvania General Assembly in 1913. The delay was due to the time needed to finish the Western Penitentiary in Centre County, now the State Correctional Institution – Rockview. From 1915 to 1962, 350 people were executed by electric chair. Most of these defendants were men, but two of them were women. [2]

A total of 1,043 people have been executed in Pennsylvania since 1693. [3] As of 2002 this was the 3rd highest of any other state or commonwealth in the Union, after New York (1,130) and Virginia (1,361). [4]

Since 1978, there have been nearly 25,000 homicides throughout the state of Pennsylvania, where 408 of these homicides ended in defendants being put on death row which amounts to 1.6 death sentences to every 100 homicides. [5]

The former Governor of Pennsylvania, Robert Casey, signed a bill in 1990 that changed the method of execution from electrocution to lethal injection. [2]

2015 moratorium

In 2015, the state of Pennsylvania spent about $46 million annually on the death penalty to maintain the prisoners housed on death row, as well as carrying out any executions. The average price to house and take care of a death row inmate per year was about $42,000. [6] With concerns over the cost of the death penalty growing, Governor Tom Wolf requested a cost-benefit analysis.

In February 2015, Governor Wolf announced a moratorium on executions that is still in effect as of January 2020. [7] [8] However, capital crimes are still prosecuted and death warrants are still executed. [8] [9] Wolf stated, "In no way does this mean sympathy for those guilty on death row." [9] In justifying the moratorium, Wolf asserted as concerns that the system claims innocent lives, is not a deterrent to crime, is racially biased, costs a lot of money, and disregards mental illness in the US. [10]

The death penalty is only applied when a defendant is guilty of first-degree murder. A separate hearing must take place for this defendant to be put on death row. If one of the ten aggravating circumstances listed in Pennsylvania law and none of the eight mitigating factors are found to be involved in the case, the verdict is death for the defendant. [2]

When the prosecution seeks the death penalty, the sentence is decided by the jury and must be unanimous.

In case of a hung jury during the penalty phase of the trial, a life sentence is issued, even if a single juror opposed death (there is no retrial). [11] [12]

A death sentence has to be affirmed by the state Supreme Court. If it is affirmed, the governor of the state must sign off on the death sentence. This is a signed document known as the 'Governor's Warrant'. [13]

State constitutional provisions require a unanimous vote of the Pardons Board to permanently change any life or death sentence before the governor can commute it. [7]

Capital crimes

First-degree murder can be punished by death in Pennsylvania if it involves one of the following aggravating factors: [14]

  1. The victim was a firefighter, peace officer, public servant concerned in official detention, judge of any court in the unified judicial system, the Attorney General of Pennsylvania, a deputy attorney general, district attorney, assistant district attorney, member of the General Assembly, Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Auditor General, State Treasurer, State law enforcement official, local law enforcement official, Federal law enforcement official or person employed to assist or assisting any law enforcement official in the performance of his duties, who was killed in the performance of his duties or as a result of his official position.
  2. The defendant paid or was paid by another person or had contracted to pay or be paid by another person or had conspired to pay or be paid by another person for the killing of the victim.
  3. The victim was being held by the defendant for ransom or reward, or as a shield or hostage.
  4. The death of the victim occurred while defendant was engaged in the hijacking of an aircraft.
  5. The victim was a prosecution witness to a murder or other felony committed by the defendant and was killed for the purpose of preventing his testimony against the defendant in any grand jury or criminal proceeding involving such offenses.
  6. The defendant committed a killing while in the perpetration of a felony.
  7. In the commission of the offense the defendant knowingly created a grave risk of death to another person in addition to the victim of the offense.
  8. The offense was committed by means of torture.
  9. The defendant has a significant history of felony convictions involving the use or threat of violence to the person.
  10. The defendant has been convicted of another Federal or State offense, committed either before or at the time of the offense at issue, for which a sentence of life imprisonment or death was imposable or the defendant was undergoing a sentence of life imprisonment for any reason at the time of the commission of the offense.
  11. The defendant has been convicted of another murder committed in any jurisdiction and committed either before or at the time of the offense at issue.
  12. The defendant has been convicted of voluntary manslaughter, or a substantially equivalent crime in any other jurisdiction, committed either before or at the time of the offense at issue.
  13. The defendant committed the killing or was an accomplice in the killing, while in the perpetration of a drug-related felony.
  14. At the time of the killing, the victim was or had been involved, associated or in competition with the defendant in the sale, manufacture, distribution or delivery of any controlled substance or counterfeit controlled substance, and the defendant committed the killing or was an accomplice to the killing, and the killing resulted from or was related to that association, involvement or competition to promote the defendant's activities in selling, manufacturing, distributing or delivering controlled substances or counterfeit controlled substances.
  15. At the time of the killing, the victim was or had been a nongovernmental informant or had otherwise provided any investigative, law enforcement or police agency with information concerning criminal activity and the defendant committed the killing or was an accomplice to the killing, and the killing was in retaliation for the victim's activities as a nongovernmental informant or in providing information concerning criminal activity to an investigative, law enforcement or police agency.
  16. The victim was a child under 12 years of age. (Child murder)
  17. At the time of the killing, the victim was in her third trimester of pregnancy or the defendant had knowledge of the victim's pregnancy.
  18. At the time of the killing the defendant was subject to a court order restricting in any way the defendant's behavior toward the victim or any other order of a court of common pleas or of the minor judiciary designed in whole or in part to protect the victim from the defendant.

Death row

The execution chamber of the State of Pennsylvania is on the grounds of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections State Correctional Institution – Rockview. Most male death row inmates are housed in State Correctional Institution – Greene, [15] while some are housed at State Correctional Institution – Phoenix. [16] As of 2015, 80% of all Pennsylvania death row inmates were held at Greene. [15] While there are no female capital case inmates at this time, any female death row inmates would be housed at the State Correctional Institution – Muncy. [17] Prior to its closure, State Correctional Institution – Graterford housed male death row inmates. [15]

As of April 2021, 115 people were on Pennsylvania's death row. [18] All of these inmates are male. [2]

74% of inmates in Pennsylvania who are on death row have been on it for more than 10 years. [19] Some inmates who were facing death row have received re-trials or different sentencing strategies due to Governor Wolf's moratorium. [20]

Pennsylvania has only executed three inmates since 1976. The first was Keith Zettlemoyer in May 1995, followed by Leon Moser in August 1995. The third and most recent execution was carried out in July 1999, with the execution of Gary M. Heidnik. All three executions were consensual, with the inmates dropping their right to appeals. This makes the state of Pennsylvania one of the least active states involving the death penalty to still retain it. Even so, Pennsylvania is one of the states with the highest number of housed death row inmates. [21]

See also

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  2. 1 2 3 4 5 "Death Penalty". Retrieved 2017-12-04.
  3. Juan Ignacio Blanco. "Executions in Pennsylvania - 1693-1800 - DeathPenaltyUSA, the database of executions in the United States". Retrieved 2016-07-21.
  4. "US Executions from 1608-2002". 2011-01-07. Retrieved 2016-07-21.
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  7. 1 2 Pennsylvania DAs take aim at Wolf's death penalty moratorium WTAE. Retrieved 21 January 2016.
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  10. "Death Penalty Facts – Amnesty International USA". Amnesty International USA. Retrieved 2017-12-04.
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  12. "Life Verdict or Hung Jury? How States Treat Non-Unanimous Jury Votes in Capital-Sentencing Proceedings". Retrieved May 22, 2020.
  13. "Pennsylvania Death Penalty - Statistics and History". TripSavvy. Retrieved 2017-12-04.
  14. Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes § 9711
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  16. "Persons Sentenced to Execution in Pennsylvania as of August 1, 2018." Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. Retrieved on September 26, 2018.
  17. "Craigslist killer Miranda Barbour is one of 170 lifers at Muncy state prison" (Archive) October 30, 2014. Retrieved on February 14, 2016.
  18. "Current Execution List". Pennsylvania Department of Corrections . Retrieved 2021-04-14.
  20. PR, N. (2015, December 21). Pennsylvania Governor Wolf Statement on Supreme Court Ruling on Death Penalty Cases. PR Newswire US.
  21. Berman, Mark (2015-02-13). "Pennsylvania's governor suspends the death penalty". Washington Post. ISSN   0190-8286 . Retrieved 2017-12-04.