Though the death penalty statute Pennsylvania enacted in 1794 established death as mandatory for first-degree murder convictions, formal imposition of the death sentence did not immediately follow conviction.* Instead, an interim period was established to allow defendants an opportunity to request that the trial court order a new trial in cases involving an obvious miscarriage of justice. That interim period generally lasted for several weeks to several months.
I have been able to identify thirteen cases in which a defendant convicted of first-degree murder was never sentenced to death. In eleven cases, a motion for a new trial was granted. In two other cases, the defendant died before formal sentencing.
In three of these cases, the defendant was likely not involved in the murder for which they were sentenced to death. In the remaining cases, the facts of the case were determined not to support a first-degree murder conviction.
These thirteen cases, while not technically capital cases, are listed here. Case descriptions are provided for each case.
Defendant Date of Crime Disposition Date of Disposition
- Zimmerlee, Joseph 09/11/1848 Reversed 01/15/1849
- Hess, Joseph 04/07/1882 Reversed 02/23/1883
- Long, Clarence 12/22/1907 Reversed 05/04/1908
- Smith, Robert 07/05/1908 Reversed 01/30/1909
- Leach, John 07/01/1915 Reversed 05/24/1916
- Adams, David 12/07/1917 Suicide 06/12/1918
- Johnson, Herbert Dewey 07/02/1918 Reversed 03/20/1920
- Paller, Theodore 04/13/1919 Reversed 10/01/1920
- Harris, James 12/06/1921 Reversed 03/28/1923
- Rastelli, Daniel 12/23/1922 Reversed 12/08/1924
- Ciccia, Vincenzo 08/26/1927 Reversed 12/30/1927
- Delforte, Oreste 08/26/1927 Reversed 12/30/1927
- Smith, Robert 10/04/1930 Died in Jail 03/14/1931
* In 1925, Pennsylvania amended its death penalty statute to provide juries the discretion to impose a life sentence or a death sentence upon a first-degree murder conviction.