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February 18, 2015

Prosecutor moves to halt Gov. Wolf's death row reprieve

A prosecutor went to court on Wednesday to try to block Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf's temporary reprieve of a convicted murderer who is set to be executed on March 4, part of the governor's recent moratorium on the death penalty.

The petition that Philadelphia District Attorney R. Seth Williams filed with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said Wolf's reprieve of Terrance Williams "is unconstitutional, illegal and should be declared null and void."

The Democratic governor declared a moratorium on the state's death penalty on Feb. 13 and said he awaited a report from a 2011 legislative task force studying the effectiveness of capital punishment.

As part of that action, the governor immediately granted a reprieve to Williams, a star high school quarterback from Philadelphia who was sentenced to death in 1986 for killing a 56-year-old man two years earlier, when Williams was 18. 

In his petition filed on Wednesday, the prosecutor said Pennsylvania law restricts pardon-granting power to the Board of Pardons. 

"Unlike some states, Pennsylvania does not grant the governor at-will power to issue a moratorium or pardon or commute any sentence of death or punishment," the prosecutor said in a statement.

By granting a reprieve, the governor effectively negated "a death sentence authorized by the General Assembly, imposed by a jury, and subject to exhaustive judicial review over a period of decades," the prosecutor said in his petition.

"The constitutional role of the Governor is to execute the law, not sabotage it," he said in the petition.

But Wolf's office on Wednesday maintained that the governor does have the constitutional right to spare Williams from execution.

"Pursuant to Article 4, Section 9 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, Governor Wolf has the power to grant reprieves,"  spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan said in an email to Reuters. 

Wolf was sworn into office on Jan. 20 after being elected on a platform that included a vow to support a moratorium on the death penalty.

He took the helm from Tom Corbett, a Republican who lost his reelection bid and who in his final days in office signed a death warrant for Williams.