December 21

Does Pennsylvania Have The Death Penalty?

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Capital punishment, also known as the death penalty, is a legal punishment in the United States, and is the practice of executing an individual for a crime.

Although the death penalty is legal in various states across America, you might be wondering: Does Pennsylvania have the death penalty?

In this article, I will cover some key information about Pennsylvania, including whether Pennsylvania has the death penalty.

Does Pennsylvania have the death penalty?

The death penalty is a highly contested and polarizing area of public debate. It has been known to divide the nation, and has garnered two opposing views for generations in Pennsylvania and other states where it is a legal form of punishment.

While some people stand by capital punishment as a form of justice and a detterence for the worst crimes imaginable, many people believe it is an archaic practice.

Despite where you stand on the subject, capital punishment still remains legal in 27 states all across America.

Does Pennsylvania Have The Death Penalty?

Yes, Pennsylvania does have the death penalty still to this day, using the lethal injection as the means to execute prisoners on death row.

Despite the fact Pennsylvania had the fourth largest death row prisoner population in the United States for over two decades, only three executions have taken place in Pennsylvania since 1976. This makes Pennsylvania one of the least active states involving the death penalty.

Although this is a relatively low number, today Pennsylvania has the fifth highest number of prisoners on death row. In April 2021, it was reported that Pennsylvania to this day has 133 prisoners on death row, just under Ohio at 137 prisoners, and above Arizona at 118 prisoners.

So, when did Capital Punishment begin in Pennsylvania?

The History Of The Death Penalty In Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania began to carry out executions in the form of public hangings during the early 1600s.

That being said, Pennsylvania became the first state in the United States to make public executions illegal, moving the gallows to county prisons in 1834.

In 1913, the state’s capital punishment statute was altered so that executions came under the administration of the state as opposed to individual counties. It was also during 1913 that the method of execution was changed from hanging to electrocution.

Between the years of 1915 and 1962, Pennsylvania carried out 350 executions, of which only two were women. The last prisoner to be executed by the electric chair was a man named Elmo Smith, with his execution taking place in 1962.

In 1990, Pennsylvania changed the method of execution from electrocution to lethal injection, which remains as the current means of execution.

Only three executions have been carried out in Pennsylvania since 1976 despite the size of the state’s death row, which for over two decades was the fourth biggest in the entire nation.

Interestingly, the three executions that have taken place since 1976 were all volunteers. This means that they waived their rights to an appeal process. In addition to this, all three men were found to have the similarity of suffering with serious mental health conditions.

The first man to be executed was Keith Zettlemoyer. Zettlemoyer was the first person in state history to be executed by lethal injection. Zettlemoyer was convicted for the murder of his friend, Charles DeVetscso, in 1980. DeVetscso had planned to testify against him in a robbery trial.

Leon Moser was the second individual executed in Pennsylvania following the reinstitution of the death penalty. Moser was convicted for killing his ex-wife and two daughters outside a church in 1985. Moser underwent psychiatric treatment whilst in prison. He was executed by lethal injection in 1995.

Gary Heidnik is the last person to have been executed in the state of Pennsylvania. Heidnik was convicted of torturing and killing women. Despite the fact he maintained his innocence up until his execution, he never fought his sentence. He suffered from schizophrenic delusions, and was executed in 1999 by lethal injection.

What Are The Types Of Cases That Result In The Death Penalty In Pennsylvania?

It is widely recognized that the death penalty is the harshest sentence a court could hand down.

The crimes that turn a murder case into a death penalty case are some of the most heinous and serious crimes that a person can commit. These crimes include but are not limited to:

  • Killing an individual in their third trimester of pregnancy
  • Killing an individual in such a way that the act creates a serious risk of death for another person
  • Killing a minor under 12 years of age
  • Killing a local or state law enforcement officer
  • Killing a fireman, public servant, or peace officer that was on duty at the time of the murder

While these are just some of the crimes, there are numerous others that can result in the death penalty.

Notable Exonerations From Pennsylvania’s Death Row

There have been several exonerations from Pennsylvania’s death row over the years.

In 1982, a man named Nicholas Yarris was convicted for the abduction, rape, and murder of a woman returning home from work. Despite the fact that there was DNA evidence collected from the scene, this wasn’t the primary evidence in this case.

Several eyewitnesses testified to seeing a man that resembled Yarris near the shopping mall where the victim was abducted. A testimony from a prison guard and a jailhouse informant was also presented by the prosecution, claiming that Yarris had confessed to the crime. In addition to this, blood was found at the scene of the crime that was the same blood type as Yarris.

The road to Yarris’ release was a long one. He sought post-conviction DNA testing in 1989 that was inconclusive. It wasn’t until 2003 that sophisticated DNA evidence revealed that blood from the killer’s gloves, semen from the victim’s underwear, and skin under the victim’s fingernails were determined to have come from a single unidentified source that was not Yarris. This thus proved Yarris’ existence, and he was exonerated.

Yarris was released from Pennsylvania’s death row, becoming the thirteenth person to be exonerated from death row based on DNA evidence.

Alongside Yarris, six others have been exonerated from Pennsylvania’s death row. Another prisoner, Frederick Thomas, died on death row of terminal cancer. At the time of his death, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office were appealing a judge’s ruling that a jury would have convicted the man had it known a series of facts that were not disclosed whilst the trial was ongoing.

Which States Still Have The Death Penalty?

Despite the fact that capital punishment is an incredibly polarizing topic, as I’ve mentioned above, there are a total of 27 states across America that still have the death penalty.

These states include:

  • Alabama
  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Indiana
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • North Carolina
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Carolina
  • South Dakota
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Wyoming

In Summary

Yes, Pennsylvania has the death penalty to this day. That being said, only three executions have been carried out by the state since 1976.

Capital punishment is still legal in 27 states across the United States of America.

Hopefully after reading this article you have a better understanding of capital punishment as a whole, and specifically in the state of Pennsylvania.



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