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Despite moratorium, paperwork of Pa.’s death penalty continues

  • Joseph Darius Jaafari/PA Post
Protesters outside the capitol in Harrisburg on Oct. 11, 2003. It would be another 12 years before Gov Tom Wolf put a moratorium on executions. Until the death penalty is legally abolished, the state continues to issue execution warrants to death row inmates. (AP Photo/Brad C. Bower)

AP Photo/Brad C. Bower

Protesters outside the capitol in Harrisburg on Oct. 11, 2003. It would be another 12 years before Gov Tom Wolf put a moratorium on executions. Until the death penalty is legally abolished, the state continues to issue execution warrants to death row inmates. (AP Photo/Brad C. Bower)

Good morning Context readers! I’m Joseph Darius Jaafari, PA Post’s newest reporter. Also, I’m new to this state, generally. So, please e-mailcall or slide into my DMs with story tips, or if you just wanna’ teach me how to properly pronounce your town’s name or the names of your local bodies of water. Today, we’re looking at the death penalty in Pennsylvania and where our state leaders — and most importantly, YOU — stand on keeping or abolishing it. – Joseph Darius Jaafari, PA Post reporter

In lieu of repeal, the bureaucratic machinery carries on

Death Penalty Protest

AP Photo/Brad C. Bower

Protesters outside the capitol in Harrisburg on Oct. 11, 2003. It would be another 12 years before Gov Tom Wolf put a moratorium on executions. Until the death penalty is legally abolished, the state continues to issue execution warrants to death row inmates. (AP Photo/Brad C. Bower)

Last Friday, Department of Corrections Secretary John E. Wetzel signed a warrant that scheduled Jakeem Towles’s execution for Dec. 13. Towles was sentenced to death in 2012 after he shot and killed a fellow rapper two years before. Multiple media outlets picked up on the secretary signing the warrant, but – and here’s the rub – the action is pretty pointless.

That’s because Gov. Tom Wolf put a moratorium in place in 2015 to bar the state from following through on any executions. Procedurally, the warrants are premature since they’re typically signed before an inmate’s appeals are exhausted. A federal judge from Pa.’s Eastern District stayed Towles’s execution because he still has an appeal available. And even if Towles exhausted his appeals, the governor’s moratorium precludes an execution, at least until Wolf leaves office in 2023. Essentially, signing the warrants is administrative busy work.

It’s been an issue for years, according to an article written by former BillyPenn writer Mark Dent. One guy told him that the warrants aren’t even worth the paper they’re signed on.

I got Mark on the phone yesterday to ask if there’d been anything new to the process. Spoiler alert, the answer was no. “It’s just odd that people keep pumping out these pieces of paper,” he told me from his home in (sunny and warm) Dallas, Texas. “It’s not irrelevant; it’s a waste of taxpayer resources.”

But where do Pennsylvania’s leaders even stand on the death penalty?  The governor doesn’t have an appetite for it, and current corrections officials in Pa. aren’t protesting the moratorium. A 2015 poll of Keystone voters found 50 percent support for Wolf’s moratorium. And despite juries still handing down death sentences, a Morning Call story found that even those have dramatically decreased.

So, why does the death penalty still exist here? And is it soon going to be on the chopping block? (I know, forgive the pun.)

This year, a case challenging the constitutionality of the death penalty in Pennsylvania was kicked down to lower courts. But legislation could change that. After a state report last year showed high costs, racial bias and that some of those on death row had an intellectual disability, bipartisan support for eliminating the death penalty could show up in a bill soon.

Where do you stand on state executions for prisoners? Submit your thoughts through our listening post here.

Speaking of the death penalty, a lawsuit was successful in securing better conditions for Pa.’s death row inmates, The settlement requires that corrections officials provide the inmates at least 42.5 hours a week outside of their cell, the Associated Press reports.

Best of the rest

Jacqueline Larma / AP Photo

House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, addresses the House chamber after taking the oath of office on Jan. 1, 2019. Turzai proposed a “pilot” program that would allow Harrisburg parents to use public funds to pay for private schools. (Jacqueline Larma / AP Photo)

  • The Speaker of Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives, Republican Mike Turzai, is pushing a plan to give Harrisburg residents the opportunity to use public funds to cover the costs of sending their children to private schools. People opposed to the idea say that it would take valuable money away from the city’s already beleaguered public school system, Keystone Crossroads reports.

  • It’s Taco Tuesday, y’all! And Taco Bell, the chain that invented the “fourth meal” — the spicy, crunchy, chewy, cheesy midnight delight — is being sued over a couple dollars and some change. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Oona Goodin-Smith gets five stars for the puns in this piece. (I’m marginally annoyed I didn’t come up with “cold, hard-shell justice,” myself.)

  • In more epicurean news, the only two Joe Coffee locations left in PA are closing their doors because of tough competition from local roasters and coffee shops, reports BillyPenn. As a former Brooklynite and, by default, coffee connoisseur, I know that coffee is life. So, here’s a list PennLive published to help you find the best local coffee shops in central Pa.

  • Republicans think freshman Democrat Conor Lamb is vulnerable in next year’s election, and they’re already dropping money on ads blasting his record. Lamb tweeted out a fundraising appeal on Monday asking for contributions to help him overcome the GOP spending. According to the document Lamb linked to, Republicans are spending $200,000 on ads in the Pittsburgh market. (Note, the “GRPS” mentioned in the document refers to “gross rating points,” a measure that supposedly amounts to one advertisement being viewed by at least 1 percent of the audience in a particular market.)


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