PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf's lawyers defended his use of death row reprieves to achieve a moratorium on executions, a promise he made on the campaign trail, while prosecutors challenged its constitutionality at a hearing Thursday before the state Supreme Court.
The lead attorney for Wolf, whose 7-month-old strategy has angered prosecutors and energized death penalty foes, said the only legal question is whether the governor has authority to issue reprieves.
"The answer is clearly 'yes,'" said H. Geoffrey Moulton Jr., a deputy in the governor's Office of General Counsel. Moulton acknowledged that Wolf cannot suspend the death penalty but said he can grant temporary reprieves without having to explain his reasons.
A top lawyer for the Philadelphia district attorney's office, which filed a court challenge days after Wolf announced his plan, said the governor is improperly using reprieves by tying them to an overdue report from a legislative task force on capital punishment.
"We're waiting for something to be satisfactorily addressed that can never be addressed at all," said Hugh Burns, chief of the office's appeals unit.
"You don't know that," Justice Max Baer interjected. "We don't have the report."
All five justices quizzed the lawyers. Justices Debra Todd and J. Michael Eakin questioned whether Wolf's strategy is technically a moratorium or merely a series of individual reprieves.
"He announced a moratorium, not a reprieve," Eakin said.
The case before the state's highest court case revolves around condemned prisoner Terrance Williams, whose scheduled March execution for the tire-iron beating death of another Philadelphia man more than 30 years ago was canceled by the first of three reprieves that Wolf's office says he has granted since February.
In court filings, the district attorney's office contended that granting Williams a reprieve amounts to an indefinite suspension of a death sentence for a defendant who has run out of legal options.
"There is no remaining legal remedy available to (the) defendant. He received exhaustive state and federal review. He sought pardon or commutation and it was denied. There is nothing legitimate left to pursue and no remedy to wait for," the office said in court papers.
Wolf said he intends to continue granting reprieves until the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment makes its recommendations and they are "satisfactorily addressed."
"The courts have no cause under Pennsylvania law to interfere with this exercise of executive power granted by the people of the commonwealth solely to their governor," his lawyers wrote in their brief.
Wolf also has granted reprieves to death row inmates Hubert Lester Michael Jr., who was convicted of murdering a 16-year-old girl in York County in 1993, and Robert Diamond of Bucks County, who gunned down two former co-workers at a warehouse in 2008.
A similar challenge, filed by state Attorney General Kathleen Kane in the Michael case, is pending in the state Supreme Court.
Pennsylvania has executed only three people since capital punishment was made legal in the 1970s and all three had voluntarily given up their appeals.
There were 182 people on death row in Pennsylvania as of Sept. 1.