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Chester County Press

Editorial: Wolf's moratorium, our self-exploration

02/17/2015 02:25PM ● By Richard Gaw

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, less than a month into his term, took action last week on a campaign issue that led to his eventual defeat of incumbent Tom Corbett last November. In a bold though anticipated move, he issued a moratorium on the death penalty in the state. In one swift action, the 186 inmates that are serving death row sentences in Pennsylvania will be issued reprieves, while a task force assessment of capital punishment gets underway, during which time it intends to unearth the answers to questions that have surrounded the issue of the death penalty for decades; namely, whether or not it is constitutional, and whether or not it lessens crime.

As a result of this reprieve, the March 4 planned execution of Terrance Williams for the 1984 murder of 56-year-old Germantown church volunteer Amos Norwood will not happen. Williams' scheduled execution would have been only the fourth in Pennsylvania since May 1995.

In a statement, Wolf said that his decision to issue the moratorium follows a period of "significant consideration and reflection" about the way capital punishment is currently being conducted in Pennsylvania, but admitted to calling it a "flawed system that has been proven to be an endless cycle of court proceedings as well as ineffective, unjust, and expensive."

Many have supported Wolf's decision, including U.S. Court of Appeals judge and prosecutor Timothy K. Lewis, who recently issued a statement that echoed Wolf's thoughts.

"At a minimum, we must take a step back to examine the effectiveness of a system fraught with racial disparity, constant reversals, and the infinite warehousing of prisoners who await a punishment that hasn't been imposed in our State in 15 years," Lewis said.

We believe that Gov. Wolf's actions are more than just an effort to place a a stop-gap measure intended to explore what many believe is a costly system of red tape and misinterpreted definitions. His decision is a higher-ground legislation against an eye-for-an-eye proliferation of violence that has both defined the United States and wounded it.

It's in the newspapers and the internet and in our cities and towns; police blotter drive-by shootings, an OK Corral society antagonized by a National Rifle Association that snakes it way around our legal system in order to better assure that more and more of our citizens have the legal means to obtain a firearm. In the face of this new reality, capital punishment in this country has merely become the endgame of a trigger-happy, lock-and-load culture, hellbent on answering a violent act with still another violent act.

This commentary does not, in any way, lean in favor of those 186 inmates who have committed these heinous crimes and lay in wait in our state's criminal justice system. The truly guilty deserve none of our compassion, which we extend instead to the families whose loved ones have had their lives taken away from them by the absolute worst of humanity.

This commentary does not, in any way, condemn those who support the death penalty. It merely asks them to imagine the billions of dollars our nation spends on death penalty cases -- sometimes $1 million more than similar cases where a lifetime prison sentence is sought -- being re-funneled into crime prevention programs, or towards the work of victim advocates. It asks them to imagine the United States following the lead of 101 member nations of the United Nations by abolishing the death penalty.

Most importantly, it asks them to imagine the life of a criminal convicted of a heinous crime, to enter into their cell for a moment. For the remainder of their lives, the criminal given life in prison lives in solitude, allowed only one hour of the day to see sunlight. If the act of retaliation is purely a born reflex, then, we ask, what is the better form of it, to satisfy our idea of justice through the pin prick of a lethal injection, or to allow the criminal to spend every remaining breath paying for what they did?