Reforming the Appellate Process for Pennsylvania Capital Punishment


The death penalty has long been a staple of governmental punishment. It has been incorporated in the Hammurabi Code of ancient Babylon on down to the current laws of many American States. In early America, capital punishment, exercised at the local level, was ubiquitous and widely accepted. Pennsylvania lists itself among the states currently employing the death penalty. The death penalty in Pennsylvania began in the late 1600’s when the first colonists carried out public hangings as a punishment for various crimes. The public nature of the punishment, initially, was intended to deter community members from committing the same crimes. However, in 1834 Pennsylvania was the first state in the union to abolish public hangings and instead conduct them within the walls of the prison. Officials hoped that conducting the capital punishment out of the public’s eye would create a sense of fear that would act as a further deterrent to criminal behavior. In 1913 the Pennsylvania State Legislature changed the method of capital punishment from hanging to electrocution. Due to delays, the electric chair was not actually available as a viable method until 1915. The state then used the electric chair from 1915 until 1962 to execute a total of 350 prisoners. Most recently Governor Casey signed legislation in 1990 instituting lethal injection as the officially state-sanctioned method for capital punishment. The last inmate executed in Pennsylvania was Gary Heidnik on July 6, 1999. Currently there are 224 inmates on Pennsylvania’s death row. Various courts, both state and federal, issued stays of execution for each and every inmate currently on death row. Many of the stays date back to the 1980’s. Courts issue the stays and they are effective indefinitely until lifted by the courts. This paper will focus on this topic, the appellate process. I leave the debate of capital punishment propriety for other projects. Given the legality of capital punishment currently in Pennsylvania, I outline the current appellate process available to those condemned and recommend reformation to maintain proper separation of powers within the process.


Criminal Law | Criminal Procedure

Date of this Version

December 2005