DA: Death penalty stay will not affect Frein case

| 19 Feb 2015 | 11:28

By Nathan Mayberg
— The district attorney prosecuting trooper ambush suspect Eric Frein says the state's new moratorium on the death penalty will not affect the case.

Governor Tom Wolf on Feb. 13 halted the further execution of death row inmates until the state senate approves a report of the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment, which will make recommendations on how to prosecute capital cases more fairly. Wolf said he would issue a reprieve for every scheduled execution until the recommended improvements are in place.

“If we are to continue to administer the death penalty, we must take further steps to ensure that defendants have appropriate counsel at every stage of their prosecution, that the sentence is applied fairly and proportionally, and that we eliminate the risk of executing an innocent," Wolf said in a memorandum announcing the policy.

Pike County District Attorney Ray Tonkin said Wolf's decision will not stop him from pursuing the death penalty for Frein.

The head of the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association, Joseph Kovel, called the decision "a travesty because it prevents the commonwealth and the family of Cpl. Dickson from securing the penalty that is deserved. This decision also will affect the families of victims from all across the state who have had their loved ones torn from them due to senseless acts of violence from dangerous criminals."

Jeff Sheridan, Wolf's press secretary, confirmed that defendants in Pennsylvania can still be sentenced to death, and that prisoners on death row face the same fate as they did before the moratorium.

The governor's stay is part of a temporary reprieve for inmate Terrence Williams, scheduled for execution March 4 for killing two men. He admitted killing them while in his teens but now says both men had been sexually abusing him.

'An unending cycle' of appealTonkin opposes the moratorium, calling it a "potentially unlawful action." He said he believes state law requires the moratorium specify a time frame.

"This unilateral action will only cause more pain and confusion to families who have suffered the actions of the worst criminals," Tonkin said.

Wolf said families suffer more grief from an appeals system that has kept most Pennsylvania death penalty cases tied up in the courts for years without resolution.

"This unending cycle of death warrants and appeals diverts resources from the judicial system and forces the families and loved ones of victims to relive their tragedies each time a new round of warrants and appeals commences," Wolf said. "The only certainty in the current system is that the process will be drawn out, expensive, and painful for all involved," Wolf said.

Sheridan said the state's constitution gives the governor the power to grant reprieves, and that Wolf has in fact stated when he will lift the moratorium.

Fifth-largest death rowDeath row in Pennsylvania currently has 186 inmates, making it the fifth-largest death row in the country. The commonwealth is mostly surrounded by states that have abolished capital punishment, including New York, New Jersey, West Virginia, and Maryland, which repealed its death penalty law in 2013.

Delaware and Ohio are the only neighboring states with the death penalty still in place. On Jan. 30, Ohio Gov. John Kasich postponed all seven executions scheduled for 2015 in his state, after a series of lethal injections were botched last year. Delaware abolished capital punishment only briefly in its history, from 1958 to 1961.

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 in Pennsylvania, only three inmates have been executed — even though governors have signed death warrants for 434 prisoners.

The high cost of capital casesTonkin said in a statement that he is "disappointed that the governor failed to respond to correspondence from the Pennsylvania District Attorney’s Association" before announcing the moratorium. The association said Wolf "turned his back on the silenced victims of cold-blooded killers."

Wolf said that among his chief concerns are the approximately 150 people on death row nationwide who have been exonerated over the past 39 years.

Sheridan said Wolf believes the crimes Frein is accused of committing "are heinous." He said the moratorium is meant only to give the commonwealth time to correct problems in its death penalty trials, including their high cost.

"If the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is going to take the irrevocable step of executing a human being, its capital sentencing system must be infallible. Pennsylvania’s system is riddled with flaws, making it error prone, expensive, and anything but infallible."

Editor's note: The Associated Press contributed to the reporting of this story.