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February 13, 2015

Gov. Wolf puts state's death penalty on hold

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput applauds move

Calling the state's death penalty system expensive and painful, Governor Tom Wolf announced a moratorium on executions Friday until he could receive and review a report on the subject.

Five inmates were scheduled to be executed next month, including Terrance Williams, who was convicted of murder in the 1980s. Williams was the first to be granted a temporary reprieve by the governor.

"Governor Wolf will grant a reprieve - not a commutation - in each future instance in which an execution for a death-row inmate is scheduled, establishing an effective moratorium on the death penalty in Pennsylvania," the governor's office said in a press release.

Wolf said in a memorandum that he made the decision to suspend the state's death penalty after a significant amount of reflection. 

"I take this action because the capital punishment system has significant and widely recognized defects," he said, noting the 186 individuals currently on death row in Pennsylvania.

The Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Commission on Capital Punishment is currently preparing a report on the state's death penalty, which has been used sparsely since it was reinstated in 1974.

In the past four decades, only three people have been put to death and all of them decided against appealing their cases. Those who fight their death sentence in Pennsylvania usually are not executed.

The last time someone in Pennsylvania died at the hand of the state was in 1999.

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput applauded the move, saying it did not diminish support for the families of murder victims.

"But killing the guilty does not honor the dead nor does it ennoble the living," Chaput said in a statement. "When we take a guilty person's life we only add to the violence in an already violent culture and we demean our own dignity in the process."

Because Wolf did not announce he was commuting inmates sentences but was instead granting a reprieve, there is the potential that death penalties could be restored.

"Since the reinstatement of the death penalty, 150 people have been exonerated from death row nationwide, including six men in Pennsylvania," the governor's office said.

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections told Reuters that the typical cost of housing a death row inmate is $10,000 more than housing other inmates and that price tag does not include legal costs of numerous appeals born by the justice system.

Reuters contributed to this story.