Sunday, March 15, 2009

Death Penalty... How Does Pennsylvania Law Work?

Harlow Cuadra was found guilty of first-degree murder last Thursday afternoon by a Luzerne County jury, and is now facing the possibility of getting the death penalty as his sentence. While a good portion of his penalty phase was held last Friday, closing arguments are expected to be heard Monday morning, and then it'll be up to the jury once again to decide. While we wait for the 'second verdict', I thought the information below might be helpful to some:

The death penalty may only be applied 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 sentence 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 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.

Status of Capital Cases

The number of inmates with execution sentences held in the state correctional system continues to grow. For security purposes, all execution cases are assigned to administrative custody status and are housed in Restricted Housing Units (RHUs) at SCIs Graterford and Greene.

Prior to the creation of the Bureau of Correction (now the Department of Corrections) in 1953, capital cases were brought to Rockview, along with the Governor's Warrant, on the day of the execution. After the bureau came into existence, it became common practice for the persons sentenced to death to be transferred to state custody as soon as formal sentencing by the judge had taken place. Until 1971, these cases were held in maximum security status, usually at Eastern or Western Penitentiary and sometimes at Graterford, until the execution date. Early in 1971, Attorney General J. Shane Creamer ordered them released into general population since no warrants had been signed for a number of years. Due to the increasing number of capital cases and concerns about security, the bureau returned all capital cases to administrative custody status late in 1982.


In June 1997, the execution complex at SCI Rockview was moved outside of the facility's perimeter to a former field hospital. The building, which is located on prison grounds, was renovated into a maximum-security building which will house capital cases for a short period of time just prior to execution. The relocation will allow officials to prepare for and carry out executions without disrupting the day-to-day operation of SCI Rockview. The relocation also enhances the safety and security of witnesses because it doesn't require them to enter the facility to view an execution. There are three cells located within this complex. If an execution is imminent, the condemned will be housed in this area until the sentence is carried out.

Additional Resources:

- Death Penalty FAQ
- Visiting Rules

Source: Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.