Responses filed in suit over Pa. death penalty moratorium

     Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has filed suit against Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf over the governor's death penalty moratorium. The case is before the state's Supreme Court. (AP photo, file)

    Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has filed suit against Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf over the governor's death penalty moratorium. The case is before the state's Supreme Court. (AP photo, file)

    Defense lawyers for a death row inmate say Gov. Tom Wolf is on the right side of history with his execution reprieves.

    When the governor announced in February he would suspend Pennsylvania’s death penalty and issue reprieves for each scheduled execution, he was met with swift outcry from prosecutors and sued by  Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams. The lawsuit challenges the governor’s very first reprieve, issued to Terrance Williams, sentenced to death for killing a man in 1984.

    The Philadelphia district attorney’s office, which prosecuted Terrance Williams, called the governor’s use of the reprieve unconstitutional because it is being used as part of a blanket refusal to carry out a duly enacted law.

    On Wednesday, lawyers for Williams filed their response to the challenge. They say the governor’s reprieve has ample historical precedent.

    “Governor Lawrence in 1961 issued a reprieve while the legislative committee studied capital punishment. That’s exactly what happened here,” said attorney Shawn Nolan. “In 1841, Governor Porter issued a reprieve to postpone an execution while the Legislature was considering banning the death penalty.”

    Wolf said his moratorium would remain at least until a task force concludes its work studying the capital punishment system in Pennsylvania. He has issued three reprieves this year.

    “What we have found is, over the past 300 years, there have been multiple reprieves,” said Nolan. “Reprieves have not been limited in purpose as the district attorney is trying to suggest they must be. It’s just not accurate.”

    The Wolf administration also responded to the lawsuit Wednesday in a separate filing, saying Pennsylvania’s Constitution puts no limits on the governor’s power of reprieve.

    The case is before the state Supreme Court.

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