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January 25, 2010

What can and should be done about Pennsylvania's decade-long moratorium on executions?

This new piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which is headlined "Death row inmates stay indefinitely: No one has been executed in Pennsylvania since 1999," raises the question in the title of the post.  As the start of the article highlights, Pennsylvania's Governor continues to sign death warrants despite recognizing that the state has had a de facto moratorium on executions for more than a decade:

Richard Baumhammers and Ronald Taylor have a lot in common.  Both are racially motivated mass killers who slaughtered innocents within a month of each other a decade ago, Mr. Baumhammers targeting minorities and Mr. Taylor targeting whites.  Both are on death row.  And neither is likely to be executed for many years, if ever.

Gov. Ed Rendell signed a death warrant for Mr. Baumhammers, 44, last week, but he admitted the execution isn't likely to happen on March 18, the scheduled date for lethal injection.  That's because the state has what the governor calls a "de facto" moratorium on executions.

The governor has signed 101 death warrants, including one for Mr. Taylor in 2006.  But the state hasn't killed anyone since Gary Heidnik in 1999.  More than 220 prisoners are on death row statewide.

It strike me as problematic and irresponsible (not to mention expensive) for the executive branch in Pennsylvania to keep pursuing death sentences and signing death warrants if it is now a legal and political given that the state will never be able to actually carry out an execution.  Indeed, there are reasons to suspect and fear that juries in Pennsylvania may be more likely to return a death verdict based on the (apparently reasonable) assumption that no defendant will actually ever again be executed in the state.

Of course, if state and federal judges are truly dead set against letting any Pennsylvania murderers get to the death chamber, there may little that the executive or legislative branch in Pennsylvania can do to alter these realities.  But, as the question in title of this post is meant to suggest, I suspect that Keystone State legislators and executive official could probably do something to try to break this harmful capital punishment log-jam.  And perhaps readers can use the comments to make some suggestions for those (few? many?) Pennsylvania lawmakers and officials who may be truly troubled by the state's decade-long de facto moratorium on executions. 

January 25, 2010 at 09:26 AM | Permalink


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It seems that the 3rd Circuit has reversed countless PA death sentences based on Mills. There have been several vacated for new sentencing due to ineffective counsel by the PCR courts. I know of only 1 case that has left the 3rd Circuit untouched: Rompilla. Of course, we all know what happened to it after.

Posted by: DaveP | Jan 25, 2010 2:47:33 PM

Each prisoner is a precious commodity alive to the rent seeking lawyer, generating massive government make work lawyer sinecures. Once dead, the gravy train ride is over for the lawyers, and for the judge.

When we say, conflict of interest, that is a middle class term for armed robbery, using government powers and weapons to plunder the taxpayer. I see no difference between lawyer rent seeking and bribing a guard to allow a criminal to escape. The system is rigged airtight, and there is no legal recourse.

Only direct action by the families of the murder victims has a chance to persuade these thievin' lawyer crooks to resume the executions.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 25, 2010 8:50:51 PM


How about a class assignment.

At some point, there needs to be a serious look into state and federal judges that won't allow executions, based upon their own personal opposition to it.

It is a flagrant legal and ethical violation that everyone involved in the system must be aware of, but evidently the other two branches of government are happy to live with.

New Jersey had the same problem and it is arguable that California does as well.

A federal judge in the Michael Ross case in Connecticut tried to use extreme coercion against Ross' attorney by threatening to disbar him if he didn't try to stop the execution of Ross, as opposed to carrying out the wishes of his client, which was to give up appeals and be executed.

This bit of judicial blackmail was brilliantly responded to by an op/ed by Robert Blecker.


Posted by: Dudley Sharp | Jan 26, 2010 10:16:10 AM

I'm not sure what you mean. The California Supreme Court usually unanimously upholds death sentences. Perhaps you're referring to the NInth Circuit.

Posted by: Alpino | Jan 26, 2010 11:10:14 AM

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