Bloomberg Law host June Grasso spoke with Associate Dean Daniel Filler on March 5 to discuss the challenge to Governor Tom Wolf's suspension of capital punishment before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Governor Tom Wolf has placed a moratorium on all executions in the state, Filler explained. This means he is essentially going to grant a reprieve to everyone who faces the death penalty, Filler said. As a result, some have come out angrily about the governor's decision, least of which Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams who brought the challenge to the moratorium before the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, Filler claimed.
There is no doubt that the governor of Pennsylvania has the power to give a reprieve, which is a temporary stay of execution, Filler explained. There are two issues here, however, one is reprieve and the other is clemency, which is to fully and permanently eliminate the possibility death penalty, he said. While Pennsylvania law is very strict on when the governor can grant clemency, and that is with unanimous vote by the board of the division of parole, the governor has a tremendous amount of flexibility when it comes to simply deferring the death penalty such as with a moratorium, Filler claimed.
Filler suggested that in many of these capital punishment cases, both judges and lawyers became concerned that the quality of representation of the defendants was not of the caliber it should be when death is on the line. Governor Wolf's moratorium, in part, is a response to those concerns, he added.
Ultimately, this issue is more political than legal, stating that both the governor and district attorney are elected officials trying to protect the interests of their constituencies - Wolf for those in favor of suspending capital punishment and, conversely, Williams for those in favor of enforcing it, Filler concluded.
Dan Filler studies the effects of social anxiety on the development of criminal law. He is an expert on sex offender community notification, the death penalty and juvenile justice law. The Pennsylvania Joint State Government on Capital Punishment appointed him to the Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment in 2012.