Some suggest 2015 could be the year Pennsylvania begins a serious conversation about whether to keep the death penalty or abolish it.
For that reason, PennLive dug into this issue to help our readers gain a better understanding of the various perspectives on capital punishment and issues surrounding it.
How many people are on death row?
As of Jan. 2, there were 186, which include 183 men and three women, according to the state Department of Corrections.
What are their ages and racial breakdown?
Their ages range from 24 to 74, but the majority are between the ages of 36 and 65. Racially, 98 are black, 68 white, 18 Hispanic and two Asians.
How many states other than Pennsylvania allow the death penalty?
Thirty-two states allow for people to be sentenced to death, but attempts were made to abolish that in at least 10 of those states last year. The last one to abolish it was Maryland in 2013.
Which state prisons are housing death row inmates?
Eighty percent of them are housed at the State Correctional Institution at Greene, located around 50 miles south of Pittsburgh, with the remainder being held at Graterford and Muncy state prisons.
What cases draw the death penalty?
A person must be found guilty of first-degree murder in combination with any of 18 aggravating factors, such as more than one victim being murdered at the same time; the victim being a child age 12 or younger; and the victim being a government employee such as a police officer or a witness in a criminal proceeding who was killed to prevent him or her from appearing in court.
How many execution warrants have been signed by governors?
Since 1985, there have been 429 of these warrants signed, according to the state Department of Corrections. But to be clear, that count includes multiple execution orders issued for
a single inmate. Mark Spotz, who murdered his brother and three women in Schuylkill, York and Cumberland counties in 1995, has been the subject of six of those execution warrants, the highest number of any of Pennsylvania's death row inmates.
How many of those inmates have been executed?
Only three have been executed, because those men voluntarily gave up their rights to appeal. The most recent execution was in 1999. The last time an inmate was executed involuntarily in Pennsylvania was 1962.
How does Pennsylvania carry out executions?
Pennsylvania uses lethal injection drugs.
Does anyone meet the qualifications to be considered for a death sentence but is constitutionally excluded?
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that it is unconstitutional to execute defendants who are mentally retarded and in 2005, it ruled that juveniles also are excluded from capital punishment.
If a death sentence is handed down, why doesn't it get automatically carried out?
Constitutionally required appeals must be carried out to ensure the trial and sentencing took place under permissible circumstances. The appeals can delay executions for years, even decades.
Marc Bookman, a former public defender and now director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation in Philadelphia, said the appeals serve an important purpose. Errors that occurred during trials and sentencings have led to 252 reversals since 1978 when the death sentence was reinstated in Pennsylvania, the highest reversal rate of any state, he said.
But district attorneys and some judges who support the death penalty blame federal defenders and their coordinated strategy to apply the brakes on capital punishment cases for the long delays.
Does the appeals process have a time limit?
No. Pennsylvania has an inmate who has been on death row for three decades. The latest federal Bureau of Justice Statistics indicates the average time between sentencing and execution nationally is 186 months — or 15.5 years.