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General News    H2'ed 6/18/15

PA Death Penalty: Governor Has History, and Ben Franklin, on His Side

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Message C. Hwang


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A new filing today on behalf of Pennsylvania death row prisoner Terry Williams provided a whole new angle on the death penalty moratorium in Pennsylvania by showing that the Governor's so-called controversial temporary reprieve should not be controversial at all -- it's been done many times before over the last 300 years of history.

When then newly-elected Governor Tom Wolf halted all executions in February, in order to wait for the report of the Pennsylvania Senate's bi-partisan death penalty study commission, Philly DA Seth Williams cried foul. The Philadelphia District Attorney's office filed a lawsuit against the Governor and Terry Williams, claiming that the Governor's use of the reprieve power was unconstitutional. The DA argued that for a reprieve to be lawful, it must have a time limit and be related to a court proceeding.

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Not so, says the new filing from Terry Williams, which details 300 years of reprieves, starting with a 1718 reprieve and going all the way through present day, showing that the Governor of the Commonwealth can use the reprieve power at his complete sole discretion.

The brief notes that the former Governor, Tom Corbett, issued an indefinite reprieve because of issues with lethal injection drugs, and that twice before, in 1961 and in 1841, governors have used the reprieve power in order to consider abolishing the death penalty.

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Most interestingly, Benjamin Franklin himself, the quintessential Pennsylvanian, once led the executive branch of government, and, yes, issued an indefinite reprieve in 1787.

While the DA's lawsuit asks the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to overturn the Governor's reprieve, today's filing points out that in the state's history, the Supreme Court has never interfered with any other governors' use of the reprieve.

With 300 years of Pennsylvania history and Ben Franklin on his side, it seems the Governor is on safe ground with his ruling. As Poor Richard would say, "an investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.

To access additional images of reprieves dating back 300 years, check out: http://www.terrywilliamsclemency.com/Reprieve-Documents.html

(Article changed on June 18, 2015 at 09:31)

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Christine Hwang is a recent graduate of American University.

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