- Associated Press - Saturday, September 19, 2015

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Despite the legal and political uproar over Gov. Tom Wolf’s 7-month-old moratorium on executions, change comes slowly on Pennsylvania’s death row.

Executions continue to be scheduled at a normal pace as inmates become eligible to be put to death by lethal injection. Wolf has not signed any death warrants, but Corrections Secretary John Wetzel has fulfilled his legal duty to set execution dates when the governor does not act.

Of the 15 executions slated to occur after Wolf took office in January, Wolf has blocked three by granting temporary reprieves and judges have issued stays for 11 other condemned prisoners. Barring a stay, the governor is likely to issue a reprieve for Northampton County mass killer Michael Ballard, whose Oct. 19 execution is the only one currently pending.

Since the death penalty was restored in 1976, only three people have been executed in Pennsylvania, the most recent in 1999. The state has the nation’s fifth-largest death row, according to the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, with 182 inmates as of Sept. 1.

Even if a condemned prisoner gave up all his appeal rights and the governor stopped issuing reprieves, an execution could not go forward because the prison system lacks the mixture of drugs required by law.

“We’re in the process of legally obtaining them and we just haven’t been successful,” said Corrections Department spokeswoman Sue McNaughton.

Wolf announced in February he would use his constitutional authority to grant reprieves to block any executions until a long-overdue legislative study of capital punishment in the state is completed. He said the system “is riddled with flaws, making it error prone, expensive and anything but infallible.”

“This is going to be a landmark study,” said state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and the bipartisan four-senator task force that will make recommendations. “If you want to take someone’s life, you better make sure that they’re guilty.”

Wolf expressed support for a death penalty moratorium during his political campaign, joining fellow Democratic governors in Colorado, Oregon and Washington who took similar steps in recent years.

But prosecutors and law enforcement groups roundly objected, branding the governor’s moratorium as an unconstitutional misuse of authority. A legal challenge filed by the Philadelphia district attorney’s office sparked a lively discussion at a state Supreme Court hearing earlier this month.

H. Geoffrey Moulton Jr., the governor’s lead attorney in the case, acknowledged that Wolf lacks the power to unilaterally suspend the death penalty in Pennsylvania. But unlike pardons and commutations, which require approval of the state Pardons Board, the governor has broad authority to grant reprieves for indefinite periods during his tenure without having to explain his reasons, Moulton said.

Wolf’s moratorium-by-reprieve policy appears likely to extend into 2016, barring a negative ruling from the courts. The Senate-ordered study was originally due in December 2013.

“It looks like it’s going to be next year,” said Greenleaf, R-Montgomery.

The report from the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment will examine concerns that include its cost, fairness, the impact on victims’ families, the role of mental illness, the value of DNA testing and the quality of legal advice available to defendants.

The Joint State Government Commission, a legislative research agency overseeing the project, is collaborating with Penn State’s Center for Justice Research and the state courts’ Interbranch Commission on Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness.

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Peter Jackson is the Capitol correspondent for The Associated Press in Harrisburg. He can be reached at pjackson@ap.org.

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