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Pennsylvania governor puts hold on death penalty

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said his decision was based on his reflection of "a flawed system."
Then, Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf takes the stage at his primary election night party in Santander Stadium in York, Pa., May 20, 2014. (Photo by Mark Makela/Reuters)
Then, Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf takes the stage at his primary election night party in Santander Stadium in York, Pa., May 20, 2014.

Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania on Friday decided to suspend the death penalty in his state until he reviews an upcoming report on capital punishment, a system he referred to as "flawed."

“This moratorium is in no way an expression of sympathy for the guilty on death row, all of whom have been convicted of committing heinous crimes. This decision is based on a flawed system that has been proven to be an endless cycle of court proceedings as well as ineffective, unjust, and expensive," he wrote in a statement. Since the death penalty was reinstated almost 40 years ago, he added, 150 people have been exonerated from death row, including six men in Pennsylvania.

RELATED: Oklahoma Republicans push for gas chamber as execution alternative

Wolf's decision came as multiple states are engaged in discussions and reflection about the constitutionality and high costs of the death penalty. Officials in the 32 states that enforce execution have also scrambled to find new suppliers of lethal injection drugs after several pharmaceutical companies stopped carrying the medication because of criticism stemming from ethical concerns. In some cases, authorities have executed prisoners hastily with drugs — often obtained in secrecy — never before used for the purpose.

Members of a Pennsylvania bipartisan task force soon will deliver the results of a study conducted to analyze the effectiveness of capital punishment in the Keystone State. Wolf's hold on the death penalty will remain in place until the commission produces its recommendation and authorities address all concerns.

Wolf's declaration postpones death for inmate Terrence Williams, whose execution was schedule for March 4. The governor is expected to grant a reprieve in each future scheduled instance. March executions were planned for at least four other individuals in the state. The last person to be executed in Pennsylvania was 55-year-old Gary Heidnik.

Since 1976, Pennsylvania has carried out three executions, making it one of the least-active states with the death penalty.

Executions are also on hold in Oklahoma, pending a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court this spring on a case involving the controversial sedative midazolam, which was used in problematic executions in at least three states. In the meantime, Republicans are advocating for Oklahoma to become the country's first state to execute death row inmates with nitrogen in a gas chamber.

The United States saw the lowest number of executions in two decades in 2014, a year in which several high-profile, botched executions drew intense public scrutiny and questions about the new drug cocktails used. Thirty-five people were executed nationwide last year, down from 39 who were executed in 2013, according to a report released in December by the Death Penalty Information Center.