Pennsylvania Death Penalty History

a syringe and vial with skull and crossbones representing lethal injection

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Execution as a form of punishment in Pennsylvania dates back to the time the first colonists arrived in the late 1600s. At that time, public hanging was capital punishment for a variety of crimes, ranging from burglary and robbery to piracy, rape, and buggery (sex with animals).

In 1793, William Bradford, Attorney General of Pennsylvania published "An Enquiry How Far the Punishment of Death is Necessary in Pennsylvania." In it, he strongly insisted that the death penalty is retained, but admitted it was useless in preventing certain crimes.

In fact, he said the death penalty made convictions harder to obtain because in Pennsylvania (and all other states), the death penalty was mandatory and juries would often not return a guilty verdict because of this fact.

First State to Abolish Public Hangings

In response, in 1794, the Pennsylvania legislature abolished capital punishment for all crimes except murder "in the first degree," the first time murder had been broken down into "degrees."

Public hangings soon grew into lurid spectacles and, in 1834, Pennsylvania became the first state in the union to abolish these public hangings. For the next eight decades, each county carried out its own "private hangings" within the walls of its county jail.

Electric Chair Executions

The execution of capital cases became the responsibility of the state in 1913 when the electric chair took the place of the gallows. Erected in the State Correctional Institution at Rockview, Centre County, the electric chair was nicknamed "Old Smokey." Although capital punishment by electrocution was authorized by legislation in 1913, neither the chair nor the institution was ready for occupancy until 1915.

In 1915, John Talap, a convicted murderer from Montgomery County, was the first person executed in the chair. On April 2, 1962, Elmo Lee Smith, another convicted murderer from Montgomery County, was the last of 350 people, including two women, to die in the Pennsylvania electric chair.

Lethal Injection

On November 29, 1990, Gov. Robert P. Casey signed legislation changing Pennsylvania's method of execution from electrocution to lethal injection and, on May 2, 1995, Keith Zettlemoyer became the first person executed by lethal injection in Pennsylvania. The electric chair was turned over to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Pennsylvania's Death Penalty Statute

In 1972, the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court ruled in Commonwealth v. Bradley that the death penalty was unconstitutional, using as precedence the earlier U.S. Supreme Court decision in Furman v. Georgia.

At the time, there were about two dozen death cases in the Pennsylvania prison system. All were removed from death row and sentenced to life. In 1974, the law was resurrected for a time, before the PA Supreme Court again declared the law to be unconstitutional in a December 1977 decision.

The state legislature quickly drafted a new version, which went into effect in September 1978, over the veto of Governor Shapp. This death penalty law, which remains in effect today, has been upheld in several recent appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court.

How the Death Penalty Is Applied in Pennsylvania

The death penalty may only be applied in Pennsylvania in cases where a defendant is found guilty of first-degree murder. A separate hearing is held for the consideration of aggravating and mitigating circumstances. If at least one of the ten aggravating circumstances listed in the law and none of the eight mitigating factors are found to be present, the verdict must be death.

The next step is formal sentencing by the judge. Frequently, there is a delay between the sentencing verdict and formal sentencing as post-trial motions are heard and considered. An automatic review of the case by the state Supreme Court follows sentencing. The court can either uphold the sentence or vacate for an imposition of a life sentence.

If the Supreme Court affirms the sentence, the case goes to the Governor's Office where it is reviewed by appropriate legal counsel and, ultimately, by the Governor himself. Only the Governor may set the execution date, which is done through the signing of a document known as the Governor's Warrant. By law, all executions are carried out at the State Correctional Institution at Rockview.

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