HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The top prosecutor in Pennsylvania's largest city filed a legal challenge Wednesday to Gov. Tom Wolf's death penalty moratorium, telling the state's highest court that the action was illegal and unconstitutional.
The challenge by Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams came five days after Wolf said he would issue reprieves at least until he receives a report from a legislative commission that has been studying the issue since 2011.
The case raised in Williams' filing involves Terrance Williams, who was convicted of the 1984 robbing and fatal tire-iron beating of another man in Philadelphia. His death sentence has been fought in state and federal courts.
"The governor's supposed reprieve is flagrantly unconstitutional, and should be declared by this court to be null, void, and absolutely without legal effect," the district attorney's legal challenge said.
Williams' execution had been scheduled for March 4. But Pennsylvania inmates facing execution have routinely been able to win delays, with the state's last execution carried out in 1999.
Wolf, a Democrat, took office Jan. 20 after pledging on the campaign trail not to sign death warrants until certain concerns raised about the death penalty had been addressed.
Pennsylvania has executed only three people since the U.S. Supreme Court restored the death penalty in 1976. All had voluntarily given up their appeals.
Wolf's office stands by the constitutionality of reprieves — Pennsylvania law does not appear to place time limits on the length of a reprieve, legislative lawyers say — and a spokesman said Pennsylvania's system of capital punishment is "ineffective, expensive and many times unjust."
Williams has exhausted all of his appeals in state and federal courts, according to prosecutors. His lawyer in his most recent case in front of the state Supreme Court did not immediately return a telephone message Wednesday seeking comment.
Williams, who was 18 at the time of the murder, testified at trial that he did not know the victim and did not kill him. Prosecutors say he had had a history of violent felony convictions, including another murder. In his later appeals, Williams said both victims had sexually abused him for years, thus motivating him to kill.
The reasons for the state's lack of executions are the subject of debate, with some attributing it to death penalty opposition among judges on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals or to aggressive tactics by lawyers who defend people facing execution. Others point to the number of stayed or overturned death sentences as evidence of flaws in how those cases are handled, particularly when it comes to providing adequate representation at trial.