Wolf moratorium reignites debate over death penalty

The Execution Complex at SCI Rockview (Pa. Department of Corrections)

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – The debate over the death penalty had been long dormant in Pennsylvania.

It is dead no longer.

Strong reaction came fast and furious after Governor Tom Wolf issued a temporary moratorium on capital punishment Friday while he further studies the issue.

“We’re absolutely devastated,” said Joe Kovel, president of the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association. “We think it’s a travesty for Pennsylvania. Our members are outraged.”

Kovel worries about the impact of Wolf’s moratorium in the case of accused cop killer Eric Frein. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

“We feel that’s what should be done and right now Mr. Frein will never see the penalty he truly deserves.” he said.

Which actually, wouldn’t be unusual. In Pennsylvania, inmates sentenced to death are almost never executed.

Only three convicted killers have been put to death since capital punishment was reinstated in 1978. The last to die was Gary Heidnick in 1999. All three asked that their appeals be stopped, paving the way for their executions.

But two murderers have exhausted their appeals and their death dates were approaching, including Hubert Michael Junior who killed 16-year=old Trista Eng in York County in 1993 and was sentenced to death in 1994. Eng’s family has endured delay after delay after delay and now a gubernatorial hold.

Pennsylvania’s victim advocate, Jen Storm, called victim’s families, including Eng’s, to tell them executions are once again being halted.

“We’re hearing everything from tears to anger,” Storm said of those phone calls to families. “There’s frustration and outrage.”

The victim advocate does not have an official position on the death penalty moratorium, but Storm does feel for the loved ones of the murdered.

“This is a secondary form of victimization for these individuals and it’s absolutely torture for them,” she said.

The governor has the ability to stop executions. He cannot stop criticism which flowed on the ABC 27 Facebook page. There were numerous comments, most of them negative, within minutes of the moratorium’s announcement.

This, from Lori Marsh, is typical: “I consider myself a liberal, but not on prisoners. Bad move. If they have been convicted and sentenced to die, then I say carry out the sentence in a timely manner!”

But Wolf was also applauded by several liberal legislators and the not-so-liberal Archbishop of Philadelphia. The state’s Catholic Conference also supports the moratorium.

“We believe that just punishment can be delivered without resorting to execution,” Catholic Conference spokeswoman Amy Hill said. “The antidote to violence is not more violence.”

Opinions vary but one thing is clear: a long-dead debate is now alive and well in Pennsylvania.


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