Capital Punishment Legislation in Pennsylvania

Death Penalty

The issue of capital punishment has caused a lot of controversy in Maryland, at the start of the 21st century. The General Assembly accused the courts of being biased against African Americans and stated that the execution of the innocent might become a real issue (Decther & Smitherman 2008). The death penalty in Maryland has been repealed in 2013 for future offenders. Thus, the paper will deal with capital punishment in Pennsylvania. It will describe the general state of capital punishment legislation as well as the recent controversies regarding it.

Capital Punishment in Pennsylvania Overview

The death penalty has been actively used in Pennsylvania since 1693 until it was first abolished in 1972. Over that period, 1,040 executions were carried out. That is the third-highest number per state after New York and Virginia (Espy & Smykla, 2002). The primary means of execution was hanging which was changed to electrocution in 1913. The punishment was appointed mostly for first-degree murder. Currently, the state of Pennsylvania allows for the capital punishment of the perpetrators who have committed aggravated murder. The aggravating factors are numerous and include the robbery, the rape of the victim, the victim being a state official, and others. Several factors do not allow for the death penalty as a punishment. They include insanity, mental retardation, and the age under 18. The sentence can repeatedly be appealed, and inmates spend an average of 14 years on death row. The last person to be executed in Pennsylvania was Gary M. Heidnik, who willingly submitted to capital punishment in 1999 abandoning the appeals. The only applied method of execution is lethal injection, but the inmates have a right to ask for electrocution. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty by the Supreme Court in 1976, only three people have been executed all on charges of murder.

Death Penalty Complications

The biggest complication related to the death penalty system as a whole is the problem of infinite appeals. The death row inmates are allowed to appeal the court decision almost indefinitely. And while the appeal is being reviewed the sentence cannot be carried out. That presents a huge problem for the entire capital punishment system. Millions are being expended on cases involving the death penalty. And there have been no executions for 17 years now. That does not mean that nobody has been sentenced. Quite on the contrary, the Pennsylvanian death row is one of the most crowded in the US with 185 convicts. That presents a huge problem for the state and the country as a whole since more and more money is spent on the court proceedings with each year the convict spends in jail (Brambila, Turner, & Urban, 2014). Pennsylvania does not appear to have any state-specific problems with the capital punishment system. All of the issues experienced by the state are nationwide.

Death Penalty Arguments in Pennsylvania

The latest debate concerning the capital punishment system in Pennsylvania was sparked in 2008 by the report by the Urban Institute. The research, based on the Maryland courts, calculated that each death sentence costs the taxpayers 1.9$ million more than the cases where capital punishment is not involved. With 185 inmates sentenced to death, the system has consumed 351$ million without any visible results. The research was supported by the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, who stated that the system was dysfunctional with more people dying from natural causes on the death row than actually being executed (Brambila, Turner, & Urban, 2014).

After that, the controversy started to grow more and more serious. Both the opponents and supporters of the capital punishment system were frustrated by its inadequacy. Some called for the abolishment of the system as a whole while others supported quicker and more decisive proceedings on the death row cases. All of that controversy led to a de facto death penalty moratorium by Governor Tom Wolf. However, since the court announced the actual suspension of capital punishment to be unconstitutional, the governor’s lawyers use reprieves. As Wolf states, he does not do it out of any sympathy for the inmates, but out of a dire need to change the system which has been useless for years (Berman, 2015). Despite the protests, Wolf intends on continuing his policy until a satisfactory solution is presented by the Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment. In his opinion, this is the only way to set the system straight and make capital punishment effective again.


The death penalty is an extremely morally ambiguous area of the law. Many people have argued that it contradicts the US Constitution and basic human rights. It is still widely used in many states including Pennsylvania. However, as the research indicates the system is woefully inadequate and needs to be either revised or abolished. It costs the taxpayers millions of dollars without acting as an efficient crime deterrent. Thus, the recent actions by the governor of Pennsylvania, while declared unconstitutional, seem logical and reasonable.


Berman, M. (2015). Pennsylvania’s governor suspends the death penalty. Web.

Brambila, N.C., Turner F., & Urban, M. (2014). Capital punishment in Pennsylvania: When death means life. Web.

Decther, G. & Smitherman, L. (2008). Repeal of death penalty urged. Web.

Espy M.W. & Smykla J.O. (2002). Executions in the United States, 1608-2002: The Espy File. Web.

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DemoEssays. "Capital Punishment Legislation in Pennsylvania." December 24, 2022.