Updated: Sunday, May 28, 2017, 10:03 AM
HARRISBURG — Five times a year, Pennsylvania corrections officials meet inside a white block masonry field house on the grounds of the prison near Penn State, and carry out a mock execution.
They escort the “inmate” to the execution chamber. They strap that person onto the gurney. And then they simulate injecting a lethal dose of drugs into his body.
They perform this drill even though capital punishment in the commonwealth remains indefinitely on hold while government officials await a report, now years in the making, analyzing capital punishment’s history, effectiveness and cost in Pennsylvania.
The death sentence imposed last month on Eric Frein, the Poconos survivalist who killed a State Police trooper and injured another in September 2014, has reignited questions – and in some cases, criticism – about why the state has taken so long to decide whether to continue or stop, once and for all, executing criminals.
Troopers say Gov. Wolf should sign Frein’s death warrant.
“For us, it’s all about justice,” said Joe Kovel, president of the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association. “It’s time for the moratorium to be lifted.”
And state Sen. Scott Wagner, a York County Republican hoping to unseat the governor next year, has signaled it’s an issue he’ll press on the campaign trail.
And state Sen. Scott Wagner, a York County Republican hoping to unseat the governor next year, has signaled it’s an issue he’ll press on the campaign trail. “I can assure you, when I’m governor, within the first 48 hours, I’ll be up there reversing that moratorium,” Wagner said in an interview Friday.
Pennsylvania isn’t the only state in limbo over the death penalty, as debate has raged over the probability of an innocent person being executed and the propriety of lethal injection as an execution method. Capital punishment is authorized in 31 states, but only seven have carried out executions — 31 of them — since the start of 2016, according to Amber Widgery, a capital punishment policy specialists at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
A view from the witness area into the execution chamber for Pennsylvania inmates.
“There are people in the world who think that no one innocent has ever been executed, and others who think it happens all the time,” Widgery said. There are also some who don’t believe you have to constitutionally execute a criminal painlessly, she said, and others who classify lethal injection as cruel and unusual.
In Pennsylvania, those and other concerns led Wolf, a Democrat, to impose a moratorium on the death penalty after taking office in early 2015. He argued the state should await the results of a long-awaited report by the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment before putting any more criminals to death.
The report is expected to analyze more than a dozen factors involving the death penalty, such as cost, bias and effectiveness.
Wolf’s decision has drawn backlash from organizations like the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, which in 2015 called it “a misuse of [the governor’s] power” that ignores the law.
The study itself has also come under fire, particularly for how long it’s taking to complete: It was ordered up by the state Senate in 2011 and was supposed to be completed by 2013.
“Based on the makeup of the group and how it’s operating to date, we have serious concerns about the product that’s going to be produced and it’s very likely that it’s going to be anti-death penalty,” said Richard Long, executive director of the prosecutors’ group.
Those involved in the study defend their work.
The initial research, conducted by Penn State’s Justice Center for Research, took years because the researchers had to physically travel to county courts and district attorneys’ and public defenders’ offices to access documents, said the center’s Managing Director, Gary Zajac.
The process of obtaining this data was a “long nightmare,” Zajac said, requiring permission to access the information then “weeding through…irregularly organized files.”
“It’s a wonder we got done at all, but we did,” he said in an email.
The Justice Center’s report awaits a final peer review before it is complete. A scholar who had been scheduled to perform that task died, causing further delay.
“The report is almost like it’s been cursed from the beginning,” said Glenn Pasewicz, executive director of the Joint State Government Commission, which is tasked with producing it then sending it to legislators for consideration.
Meanwhile, tax dollars still go toward keeping prisoners on death row.
Each of the state’s 165 death row inmates — from Frein, who was sentenced last month, to Henry Fahy, who has been awaiting his punishment since November 1983 — cost Pennsylvania $10,000 more a year to house than a convict sentenced to life in prison. This does not account for the additional legal fees associated with capital cases: Some estimate prosecuting and litigating a capital murder case can cost up to $3 million more than a non-capital murder case.
The state is also paying to maintain the long-dormant execution facility on the grounds of State Correctional Institution Rockview. The last time it was used was in 1999, when Philadelphia “House of Horrors” murderer Gary Heidnik was executed by lethal injection.
“We have spent billions of dollars having a death penalty – including maintaining a death facility – and we have not executed someone who did not ask to be executed” since 1962, Sen. Daylin Leach, a Montgomery County Democrat and one of four members of a Senate task force awaiting the report, said last week.
Leach is an unapologetic opponent of the death penalty. He has introduced bills to abolish it since 2009, arguing that it is “immoral and barbaric,” and calling the cost of capital punishment “troubling” – including the cost of maintaining the execution complex.
The “death house,” as the chamber at the Rockview prison is sometimes called, requires tax dollars to be heated, lit and maintained. “It’s literally something we are getting zero out of,” Leach said.
The Department of Corrections was unable to provide information about the costs of maintaining the execution complex. But officials there say it has to be maintained in case an execution is suddenly scheduled.
Corrections officials declined requests to inspect or photograph the inside of the chamber, citing security reasons. They say it contains three cinderblock holding cells, where inmates are expected to spend their final hours. Approximately 20 feet away, in the execution chamber, a window peers through to a witness room, where media, citizens and victims can watch executions from rows of metal folding chairs.The field house has upstairs offices, currently unused, and an adjacent building with a kitchen to prepare an inmate’s final meal.
But that hasn’t been necessary since 1999.
Read full story: What will happen to Pennsylvania's death penalty?