PA Supreme Court Upholds Death Penalty Reprieve

By Austin Nolen

According to a decision released today by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Governor Tom Wolf acted within his powers by granting a reprieve to Terrance Williams. Williams was sentenced to death for a 1984 murder in Philadelphia. Last winter, Wolf announced he was temporarily halting Williams’ execution until he received and implemented a report on capital punishment commissioned by the state Senate in 2011. Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams promptly asked the Supreme Court to review the reprieve, claiming it Wolf exceeded his constitutional authority.

In the unanimous opinion, the justices rejected DA Williams’ claim that Pennsylvania law requires reprieves to have a “specific end date or [to be issued] for a purpose relating only to the prisoner’s unique circumstances.” Rather, the justices found that the power, as adopted in the 1790 state constitution, “encompassed any temporary postponement of sentence,” for any reason the governor wished, consistent with the English common law on which the American legal system is built. Specifically, the justices did not consider the constitutionality of Wolf’s plan to create a broader moratorium on executions in the state.

The Supreme Court heard the case under an unusual procedure. Rather than considering the case on appeal from a lower court, the justices took the case under what is termed “King’s Bench” jurisdiction. Named for the Court of King’s Bench, which existed from the 13th through the 19th century in Britain, this power allows the Supreme Court, like the Court of King’s Bench, to take control of cases of public importance in need of quick resolution. As John Langbein, Renee Lettow Lerner and Bruce Smith wrote in their book History of the Common Law, “the premise [was] that the king as the source of justice retained the residual authority… to prevent injustice, and that the King’s Bench, as the last of the courts to separate [from his private council]… could exercise that authority in the king’s name.”

Terrance Williams will also have a separate case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in the coming months. In that case, Williams argues that Ronald Castille, chief judge of the PA Supreme Court when it heard Williams’ appeal, should have recused himself, as he was also the District Attorney of Philadelphia when Williams was initially prosecuted.

In a statement, Governor Wolf said he was “pleased the court upheld the constitutional authority of the governor to issue temporary reprieves in death penalty cases,” and that his “decision to issue temporary reprieves came after significant consideration and reflection, and was in no way an expression of sympathy for the guilty on death row.”

Cameron Kline, a spokesperson for the District Attorney, told The Philadelphia Inquirer that “prosecutors respected the decision even though they had argued for another outcome.” Justice Stevens filed a concurring statement in which he expresses concern for the families of victims and urges that “such reprieve… be made truly temporary in nature.”

The Supreme Court’s opinion, and Justice Stevens’ concurring opinion, are available below:


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