Philadelphia Criminal Law News

How Does the Death Penalty Work in Pennsylvania?

It has been 13 years since a prisoner was executed in Pennsylvania. Now capital punishment is back in the news with regards to two separate cases: jury selection for Kaboni Savage's murder trial, and the denial of a pardon for Terrance Williams, who is set to be executed in October.

Savage is already in prison, serving 30 years for a 2005 drug conviction. In 2009, Savage was charged with 12 homicides, including the 2004 firebombing death of two women and four children in North Philadelphia, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for him and three accomplices.

Williams was convicted of the 1984 murder of Amos Norwood and sentenced to death in 1986, according to the Philadelphia Daily News. His legal team has been trying to commute his sentence to life without parole based on the argument that he was sexually abused as a child.

These cases raise the question of how the death penalty works in Pennsylvania.

The Pennsylvania and federal death penalty systems work in the same way. First there is a trial to determine the guilt of the accused. If the accused is found guilty, then there is a secondary hearing in front of a jury.

This secondary hearing is solely to determine whether the death penalty is warranted. Evidence of impact to the victim's family and mitigating circumstances will be presented by the prosecutor and defense.

Aggravating factors -- for example, if the victim was a hostage, a witness to a case, or a police officer or firefighter -- can make a jury more inclined to hand down the death penalty. Other factors can include whether the convicted murderer was paid to kill, and whether the murder took place during the commission of a separate felony like a drug deal or hijacking.

Mitigating factors that weigh against the death penalty include having no prior convictions, being under the influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance, and evidence regarding the murderer's character or the specific circumstances surrounding the killing, among others.

Based on these factors, it's arguable that Terrance Williams should have been given a life sentence based on the mitigating factor of sexual abuse. But Kaboni Savage's case seems a better fit for capital punishment, if he's convicted of allegedly killing witnesses in connection with a drug-trafficking case.

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