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Pennsylvania executive officials disagree on clemency bid

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September 19, 2012

By Maresa Strano


HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania: One of the powers vested in both the lieutenant governor and attorney general of Pennsylvania is a voting seat on the state's Board of Pardons. The Board of Pardons is composed of five members charged with reviewing applications to reconsider criminal sentences, with the exception of impeachment cases, and then voting to "determine whether clemency should be recommended to the Governor for his approval or denial."[1] A common duty for state chief executive officers, the Pennsylvania Constitution empowers its governor with the ability to, under extraordinary circumstances, confer mercy on a criminal after a court has concluded his/her guilt. What distinguishes Pennsylvania's post-sentencing adjustment system slightly from those practiced in other states is that the Pennsylvania governor's role in the process only arrives after the Board of Pardons has made its final consideration- and only if the Board votes to nominate the clemency bid for gubernatorial submission.

In cases with the severest sentences--life imprisonment or the death penalty--a unanimous decision among the five Board members is prerequisite to a bid's consideration by the governor. This rule came into play most recently when the Board voted 3-2 on the application to block the execution of Terrence Williams, who was given the death penalty in 1986.[2] Board members Attorney general Linda Kelly and lieutenant governor Jim Cawley contributed to the split. Cawley was one of two who voted to oppose the clemency bid, which reached the Board after new, potentially mitigating, evidence arose in Williams' case concerning the convicted murder's history of repeated sexual abuse by men. The Board's disagreement eliminated the possibility for Gov. Tom Corbett (R) to exercise his pardoning power in the case.

Today, Williams' attorneys will request a stay of execution from a Philadelphia judge, whose ruling could segue into an appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court down the line. Time is of the essence, however, with Williams' execution scheduled for October 3rd. The federal public defender working for Williams will try to convince the judge that prosecutors withheld evidence of sexual abuse from the defense, and that such information could have affected the outcome of the case.

There are currently two hundred inmates on death row in Pennsylvania. If Williams' original sentence is carried out, his will mark the state's first execution of a prisoner in 13 years.[2]

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