Families of Victims Must be Heard

March 4, 2015

Families of murdered loved ones should have as much input as anti-death penalty advocates

Harrisburg, PA – It appears that Governor Tom Wolf relied more on input from anti-death penalty advocates than he did on the input from actual people who lost family members to the horrendous acts of convicted killers when he made his decision to impose a moratorium on the death penalty last month.

Today, the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association (PDAA) insisted the governor take into account the perspective of these families.  When considering any changes to the state’s death penalty law, families of murder victims cannot be ignored.

“No one struggles more than the people who loved the 298 men, women and children who lost their lives at the hands of the convicted murderers on Pennsylvania’s death row,” said PDAA President and Union County District Attorney Pete Johnson. “These families should have been heard before Governor Wolf suspended Pennsylvania’s death penalty last month.   They need to be heard now.”

Ella Brown had raised her family and was finally planning a dream trip to Europe with her husband.  The dream never came true when she was kidnapped and robbed.  She was killed by a cut to the throat, but it wasn’t enough.  Her killer continued the assault, brutally and repeatedly stabbing her in the back so violently her ribs were broken.  Her daughter says her family needs justice and closure.

June Ohlinger was getting ready for her granddaughter’s birth, but she never lived to see her.  Instead, when June arrived at work one day, she was abducted, robbed and taken to a secluded location where she was shot and her body was thrown in a creek. Her daughter and son-in-law ask: “How is this justice for us, the families, or even the victim?”

“I supported the governor in his election, but I’m disappointed that during the decision making process on the issue of the death penalty he did not consult with district attorneys or consult with the families of victims whose lives have been torn apart by the people who have been sentenced to death for their actions, said Berks County District Attorney John Adams who also served on the governor’s corrections transition committee.

In February, the governor granted Terrance Williams a “reprieve” and said he was imposing a moratorium on the death penalty until he receives a report on the death penalty from the Joint State Government Commission.  Governor Wolf made the move without responding to a request by district attorneys to discuss the issue, seeking the input of victims’ families, or including it as part of the his corrections transition committee agenda.  The Joint State Government Commission Task Force on the Death Penalty includes only one family member of one victim. The state’s victim advocate also sits on the task force.  PDAA believes the input of many more families is needed to provide adequate representation and sensitivity to the plight of these families.”

District attorneys throughout the state have called the governor’s so-called moratorium a misuse of his power that ignores state law.

“The governor’s announcement did not change the law.  Capital punishment remains the law in this commonwealth and should be applied when appropriate,” said Allegheny County District Attorney Steve Zappala.  His office recently stated it would seek the death penalty in the case against James Karr, who is accused of killing his estranged wife, Maureen Karr (57).  Maureen was seeking a protection from abuse order from Karr.  Unfortunately, before she could obtain the order, Karl allegedly set fire to her home, killing her.

“It is unlikely that a court will allow a governor to grant ‘reprieves’ based on a governor’s concern about the fairness of the process or the release of a report that has no legal significance,” said Northampton District Attorney John Morganelli. “If this was permitted, it would in effect allow a governor to commute death sentences to life bypassing The Board of Pardons in contravention of Article IV of the Pennsylvania Constitution. Only the legislature has the power to repeal the death penalty and only the judiciary has the power to suspend the death penalty or declare it null and void as unconstitutional or in violation of due process. ”

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, which has jurisdiction in the Terrance Williams case, filed an emergency petition with the state Supreme Court last week. PDAA filed an amicus brief in support of the petition.  Yesterday, the Supreme Court announced it would review the legality of the governor’s actions with regard to the death penalty.