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HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania's highest court upheld Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's authority Monday to postpone executions in the state, rejecting a challenge from the prosecutor in the state's biggest city.
Concerned about flaws in the death penalty system, Wolf last year began issuing reprieves to condemned inmates, and quickly drew challenges from prosecutors. On Monday, he said he was pleased the Pennsylvania Supreme Court backed his constitutional authority to issue temporary reprieves in death penalty cases.
"My decision to issue temporary reprieves came after significant consideration and reflection, and was in no way an expression of sympathy for the guilty on death row," Wolf said in a statement. "My only sympathy lies with the family members of the victims of these horrible crimes."
Wolf has issued reprieves in the cases of five convicted killers.
Shortly after becoming governor last January, Wolf said he would grant the temporary reprieves out of concern for a state death penalty system that is "riddled with flaws, making it error prone, expensive, and anything but infallible."
The court's unanimous decision rejects a challenge by Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, who argued that reprieves had never been meant or used to indefinitely postpone an execution. Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane also challenged Wolf's reprieve in another case.
In the high court's 33-page decision, the justices said the governor's constitutional power to issue reprieves never required a specific end date or a purpose relating only to the prisoner's unique circumstances.
In addition, they wrote, governors have issued temporary reprieves that were not tied to a specific end date or that had purposes other than to give the prisoner an opportunity to seek further appeals.
Wolf has said the effective moratorium will remain in effect at least until he receives a report from a legislative commission that has been studying the topic for about four years. The report is expected in 2016.
Williams had challenged Wolf's reprieve in the case of a man who was convicted of the 1984 robbing and fatal tire-iron beating of another man in Philadelphia. The death sentence for that man, Terrance Williams, has been fought in state and federal courts.
The Philadelphia prosecutor's office said Monday it respected the court's decision.
"We extend our condolences to the victims of these horrendous crimes, who will not soon see the justice that was imposed by the jury and upheld by the courts," it said in a statement.
The attorney general's office said Kane was disappointed with the ruling
She believes the death penalty "serves both the cause of justice and acts as a deterrent," it said.
Terrance Williams' lawyers, Shawn Nolan and Timothy Kane of the Federal Community Defender Office in Philadelphia, called the decision "entirely appropriate in light of Pennsylvania's deeply flawed capital punishment system."
Pennsylvania last executed an inmate in 1999.
Pennsylvania's death row has been shrinking, and now houses 181 men and three women. But the state has executed only three people since the U.S. Supreme Court restored the death penalty in 1976. In all three executions, the inmates voluntarily gave up their appeals.