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Court backs Wolf in Phila. death penalty case

Gov. Wolf acted within his constitutional authority to temporarily halt the execution of a convicted murderer from Philadelphia, the state Supreme Court ruled Monday.

Gov. Wolf acted within his constitutional authority to temporarily halt the execution of a convicted murderer from Philadelphia, the state Supreme Court ruled Monday.

In a unanimous decision, the high court said Wolf had the power to delay the death sentence for Terrance Williams until a legislative task force issued its final report on the future of capital punishment in Pennsylvania.

The ruling does not apply to Wolf's broader moratorium on the death penalty, but it was a victory for the governor in the broader and contentious battle over the future of executions in the commonwealth.

Wolf announced the reprieve for Williams in February, saying he would postpone all executions until after the report was issued. That decision was challenged by Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams and prosecutors from other counties, who argued, among other things, that Wolf's position unlawfully meddled with the jury's decision in the case.

But in a 33-page decision written by Justice Max Baer, the court said, "We disagree with the commonwealth's suggestion that the reprieve unconstitutionally altered a final judgment of this court; rather, the execution of the judgment is merely delayed."

The court was careful to say it was not considering whether Wolf's overall moratorium was legal; rather, it said, it was weighing specifically whether the governor could delay the execution of Williams, a former quarterback at Germantown High School who was convicted in the 1984 killing of Amos Norwood, a 56-year-old church volunteer.

"Future challenges to reprieves granted by Gov. Wolf will have to await independent examination based upon our holdings herein," the court wrote.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Correale F. Stevens wrote that any reprieve should be "truly temporary in nature."

"If there is no death penalty law in Pennsylvania, such decision should come from the legislative body," he wrote.

Wolf issued a brief statement saying he was pleased by the court's ruling. When he announced the decision earlier this year, he called the death penalty "ineffective, unjust, and expensive."

A report from the task force studying whether the death penalty can be legally and effectively administered in Pennsylvania was due two years ago, but its deadline has been extended. Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery), a member of the task force, said the committee could release its final report by next fall.

Shawn Nolan, Terrance Williams' attorney, said Monday that he had not yet shared the news with his client but was pleased by the decision.

"We have been saying all along that it was constitutional what the governor did," he said. "We're gratified that the Supreme Court made a unanimous decision."

Williams' case is also scheduled to go before the U.S. Supreme Court in February. In that appeal, Nolan is arguing that former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Ronald D. Castille should have recused himself from hearing an appeal because he was Philadelphia's district attorney when Williams was sentenced to death.

Cameron Kline, spokesman for the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, said prosecutors respected the decision even though they had argued for another outcome.

Pennsylvania's death penalty has been used only three times since being reinstated in 1978. Thirty-one other states have the death penalty.