Governor Responds to DA Seth Williams’ Challenge to Execution Moratorium

By Kenneth Lipp

District Attorney Seth Williams and Governor Tom Wolf continue to duke it out in state Supreme Court over the life of Terrance Williams, which the governor has extended indefinitely along with all others under PA death warrants pending report of the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Commission on Capital Punishment. Two latest filings, from Wolf’s and Terrance Williams’ attorneys, was ordered by the court to be delivered by noon Friday, is in response to the DA’s Emergency Application for Extraordinary Relief seeking to have Mr. Williams’ death sentenced carried out on March 4th, as ordered by former Governor Tom Corbett before he left office in January (The Declaration’s Austin Nolen has written regarding the DA’s legal assertions).

Williams was sentenced 29 years ago at the age of 19 to die for the robbery and fatal beating of Amos Norwood on June 11, 1984. The key witness in the case against him, Marc Draper, his alleged accomplice, pleaded guilty and cooperated with the prosecution in exchange for a life sentence. Draper is the son of a Philadelphia Police Officer, and has since recanted his testimony at Williams’ trial.

Mark Dent wrote  for Billy Penn about DA Williams’ Emergency Application for relief from Wolf’s Executive Order to temporarily spare PA death row inmates, specifically Terrance Williams, and explains the District Attorney’s argument :

[The Executive Order] is unconstitutional because it’s not really a reprieve, due to its open-ended nature.Williams, like Wolf a Democrat, argues that in Pennsylvania history a reprieve has always meant a postponement of criminal judgement with a defined timetable in which a defendant can seek a way to eliminate charges or a conviction or to allow new evidence to be presented. Wolf didn’t give a timetable for how long his order would last, except for that it would stay in effect at least until a legislative commission finished a years-long study on the death penalty.

The filing also called out Wolf for saying the death penalty should only exist if it’s infallible. Williams’ office contends that the governor’s position isn’t possible.

Wolf’s attorneys claim that he exercised a power which is the Governor’s “expressly and exclusively” according to the PA Constitution. Their argument in response to Seth Williams’ application asserts that the Philly DA, “acting ostensibly on behalf of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” sought to interfere with the governor’s reprieve power, of which the Constitution makes no limitation, on the erroneous grounds that granting Terrance Williams a stay was an unlawful interference with the judiciary.

The state Constitution does limit the Governor’s power to commute sentences or pardon convicts by requiring the written recommendation of the majority of the Board of Pardons (and excluding cases of impeachment, so the governor cannot pardon himself).

The Governor’s response also notes that it would be impossible to carry out a March 4th execution because the PA Department of Corrections does not currently have the drugs necessary to do so legally.

The District Attorney has the legal discretion to defend sentences for crimes adjudicated prior to his or her tenure. There are currently 69 inmates from Philadelphia out of 186 on Pennsylvania’s Death Row.

The full text of DA Williams’ and both Respondents’ filings can be found below:

Response, attorney for Terrance Williams

Response, attorneys for Governor Tom Wolf

About Kenneth Lipp

Kenneth is a writer and researcher. He’s from Alabama, and will not apologize for it. He moved to Pennsylvania in 2012, but has been in love with Philadelphia since a late-night stroll down Ben Franklin Parkway to the Art Museum in July of 2011 with the love of his life. He is interested in telling Philadelphia’s dynamic and absolutely unique stories with the zeal of a constantly enamored newcomer. Kenneth is also passionate about government transparency and protection of whistleblowers, most notably PFC Chelsea Manning. His research and reporting on law enforcement and surveillance have been featured in various publications, including Rolling Stone (Meet the Private Companies Helping Cops Spy on Protesters) and Popular Science (Boston Tested Crowd-Watching Software That Catalogues People's Skin Color). His training is in both genetics and history and he likes the joke about being a helicase and unzipping your “genes.” He’s driven to know, and thinks you can handle, the truth. Follow him on Twitter @kennethlipp.

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