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 1600s 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 prisoner executed by means of the electric chair was Elmo Smith in 1962. Pennsylvania passed a law in 1990 that 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 for more than two decades was the fourth largest in the nation. The Commonwealth's death row has declined steadily in size from 246 in October 2001 to 175 in July 2016, without any executions, primarily as a result of death sentences being overturned in the courts and defendants being resentenced to life or less or acquitted. It is now the country's fifth largest death row.
The Reading Eagle reported in June 2016 that from the time the Commonwealth enacted its current death penalty statute in September 1978 through 2015, Pennsylvania had sentenced 408 prisoners to death. Of those, 191 had subsequently been resentenced to life or less or released (46.8%), including 169 resentenced to life (41.4%); 16 resentenced to a term of years (3.9%); and 6 exonerated (1.5%). 181 remained on death row (44.4%), including 28 whose convictions or death sentences had been overturned but who were awaiting further court proceedings. 33 had died on death row other than by execution (8.1%). 3 had been executed (0.7%).
Mumia Abu-Jamal was charged with the 1981 murder of police officer Daniel Faulkner and both the conviction and the subsequent death sentence sparked fierce controversy. Throughout his three-decade stay on Pennsylvania's death row, Abu-Jamal's supporters maintained that he is innocent. Organizations including Amnesty International and the City Government of Paris have alleged that the trial was tainted by racial discrimination and prosecutorial misconduct. While on death row, Abu-Jamal published many works, including a collection of memoirs Live From Death Row. His death sentence was overturned by a federal court as a result of an unconstitutional jury instruction in the penalty phase of his trial. That ruling was initially reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court, which directed the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit to consider the implications of a recent case it had decided. On remand, the Third Circuit again overturned Abu-Jamal's death sentence and the Supreme Court declined to review that ruling. Maureen Faulkner (wife of Daniel Faulkner), as well as the Fraternal Order of Police, continued for many years to push for the sentence of death to be carried out. However, after the Supreme Court's decision, she said she was willing to accept a life sentence, and the Philadelphia District Attorney agreed to withdraw the death penalty from the case. Abu-Jamal is now serving a life sentence.
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. Multiple eyewitnesses testified to having seen a man resembling Yarris loitering in the vicinity of the shopping mall from which the victim was abducted. The prosecution also presented testimony from a prison guard and a jailhouse informant claiming that Yarris had confessed. Blood evidence was found that was the same blood type as Yarris. In 1989, Yarris sought postconviction DNA testing that was deemed inconclusive. Years later, in 2003, more sophisticated DNA testing had been developed. DNA evidence from blood on the killer's gloves, skin under the victim's fingernails, and semen from the victim's panties were determined to have come a single unidentified source, who was not Nick Yarris. Yarris 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.
Five other men have been exonerated from Pennsylvania's death row, and Frederick Thomas died on the row of terminal cancer while the Philadelphia District Attorney's office appealed a judge's ruling that no jury would have convicted him had it known a variety of facts that were not disclosed to it at the time of trial.
Milestones in abolition/reinstatement
In Commonwealth v. Bradley (1972), the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled the Commonwealth's death penalty sentencing procedures unconstitutional, implementing the Supreme Court's decision in Furman v. Georgia. Death row was emptied and sentences were judicially reduced 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, again over Governor Shapp's veto, 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. Governor Wolf indicated that the moratorium would be implemented by granting reprieves to each death row prisoner who did not receive a stay of execution from the courts.
Other interesting facts
Pennsylvania has the most onerous clemency prerequisites of any state, requiring the five-member Board of Pardons, which includes the Attorney General, the Lt. Governor, a corrections expert, a victim advocate, and a mental health expert, to unanimously recommend clemency before the Governor has the power to consider commutation. It not granted any death row inmate clemency since Furman v. Georgia.
Pennsylvania has an automatic death warrant statute that requires the Governor or Corrections Secretary to prematurely set execution dates at the conclusion of the direct appeal process and within 30 days of the termination of any judicial stay. This results in a series of death warrants being signed before statutorily and constitutional mandated state and federal appeals have been filed. As a result, courts have stayed more than 90% of the death warrants. Governor Wolf has refused to sign death warrants; his Secretary of Corrections has issued notices of execution.
The three prisoners executed since 1978 have all been volunteers with serious mental health issues, whom courts found to have waived their rights to an appeals process.
Reading Eagle illustration by Bob Schneider (6/20/2016). Republished, courtesy of The Reading Eagle. See Nicole Brambila, Executing Justice: The discretionary nature of the death penalty in Pennsylvania, The Reading Eagle (June 20, 2016).
DPIC Testimony at Pennsylvania Legislative Hearings
Testimony before the House Judiciary Committee (June 11, 2015)
Thanks to Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty for contributing to this page.