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Death Penalty: Yes
DPIC's State Database for information on executions, death row population and other statistics in Pennsylvania
Philadelphia skyline. Public domain photo.
Pennsylvania began carrying out executions in the early 1600's in the form of public hangings. In 1834, Pennsylvania became the first state in the U.S. to outlaw public executions and move the gallows to county prisons. In 1913, the state's capital punishment statute was amended to bring executions under the administration of the state rather than individual counties, and also changed the method of execution to electrocution. Between 1915 and 1962, there were 350 executions in Pennsylvania, including two women. The last inmate executed by means of the electric chair was Elmo Smith in 1962. Pennsylvania passed a law in 1990 that once again changed the method of execution from elecrocution to lethal injection, the current means of execution. Prior to 1976, Pennsylvania carried out 1,040 executions, the third highest number of any state. Only three executions have actually been carried out since reinstatement in 1976 despite the size of the state's death row, which is the fourth largest in the nation.
Mumia Abu-Jamal was charged with the 1981 murder of police officer Daniel Faulkner and both the conviction and the subsequent death sentence have sparked fierce controversy. Mumia Abu-Jamal has maintained his innocence throughout his three-decade stay on Pennsylvania's death row. Organizations including Amnesty International and the City Government of Paris have alleged that the trial was tainted by racial discrimination and prosecutorial misconduct. Maureen Faulkner (wife of Daniel Faulkner), as well as the Fraternal Order of Police, continue to push for the sentence of death to be carried out. While on death row, Abu-Jamal has published many works, including a collection of memoirs Live From Death Row. Abu-Jamal's death sentence was overturned by a federal court, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review that ruling. Abu-Jamal is now serving a life sentence, and the District Attorney has agreed not to seek a new death sentence in the case.
Nicholas Yarris was convicted in 1982 for the abduction, rape and murder of a young woman returning home from a day of work at the local mall. DNA evidence was collected at the crime scene but wasn't the primary evidence in Yarris' conviction. In 1989, Yarris invoked his right to postconviction DNA testing. Years later, in 2003, DNA testing finally proved Yarris' innocence and he was released from death row, making him the 13th person exonerated from death row based on DNA evidence. The real perpetrator in the case has yet to be determined.
Milestones in abolition/reinstatement
In Commonwealth v. Bradley (1972), the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled the death penalty sentencing procedures unconstitutional. Death row was emptied and sentences were commuted to life. In 1974, overriding Governor Shapp's veto, the legislature reenacted the death penalty, but this law was also found unconstitutional in 1977.
In 1978, a revised version of the death penalty statute was passed, reinstating the death penalty in Pennsylvania.
In 2011, the state legislature passed SR 6, initiating a study of the death penalty in Pennsylvania. The study is currently underway.
On February 13, 2015, Governor Tom Wolf announced a moratorium on executions, citing concerns about innocence, racial bias, and the death penalty's effects on victims' families.
Other interesting facts
Pennsylvania has not granted a death row inmate clemency since Furman v. Georgia.
The three prisoners executed since 1978 have all been volunteers, waiving their rights to an appeals process.
Pennsylvania became the first state to move executions out of the public eye into correctional facilities in 1834.
Thanks to Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty for contributing to this page.