Shapiro pushes to abolish capital punishment

The governor called on the legislature to abolish the practice and has refused to sign execution warrants.
Pennsylvania Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference in Philadelphia, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

A moratorium on executions will continue in Pennsylvania, Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) announced Thursday.

Continuing the precedent set by his predecessor, Shapiro has refused to sign execution warrants and plans to use his executive authority to issue a reprieve to anyone whose execution is scheduled. He also called on the General Assembly to abolish capital punishment altogether.

“The commonwealth should not be in the business of putting people to death,” Shapiro said during a press conference at Mosaic Community Church in Philadelphia.

Pennsylvania’s most recent execution took place in 1999. Data from the state Department of Corrections shows that more than 100 men and women have death sentences.

The first execution warrant reached his desk last week, said Shapiro, who previously served on the state Board of Pardons.

When he campaigned for governor, Shapiro said he opposed the death penalty. When he ran for attorney general in 2016, he supported capital punishment for heinous crimes. Shapiro said his viewpoint has “evolved” over time.

“When my son asked me why it was OK to kill someone as a punishment for killing someone, I couldn’t look him in the eye and explain why,” he said.

Former Gov. Tom Wolf suspended the death penalty upon taking office in 2015 and urged lawmakers to review and reform the capital punishment system.

Shapiro, however, said studying changes “misses the mark.”

“That’s why today, I am respectfully calling on the General Assembly to work with me to abolish the death penalty once and for all here in Pennsylvania,” he said, urging lawmakers to work together. “I think this must be bigger than studying this issue or just reviewing the system. We shouldn’t aim to fix this system.”

Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R) expressed frustration over how Shapiro announced his position on the death penalty, saying that learning about it “only minutes before it was announced on his Twitter account is a rash approach to an issue of this magnitude.”

“Any changes to close access to an element of punishment must appropriately consider the families of murder victims and the critical perspective of law enforcement,” he said in a statement. “Protecting our society while implementing meaningful criminal justice reforms have been ongoing priorities for the Senate Republican Caucus, and we will continue to engage in criminal justice reform discussions this session. Without question, the legal and ethical aspects of the death penalty warrant careful examination before being used.”

The death penalty is allowed in 27 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some states legislatively abolished capital punishment and replaced it with a life sentence with no possibility for parole.

“A sentence of death has more to do with where a defendant lives, what they look like, and what resources they have at their disposal than it does with a crime that they have committed,” Sen. Nikil Saval (D) said. “Moreover, a sentence of death offers nothing to those who are grieving the loss of a loved one and nothing to a community to help repair the harm done and to heal.”

He added that capital punishment designates the state “in the morally abhorrent role of executioner.”

“And no state should ever be granted the authority to put a person to death,” Saval said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania joined in Shapiro’s call for the General Assembly to outlaw the death penalty, calling capital punishment “an archaic, broken policy from a bygone era.”

“The concepts of basic fairness, equality, and justice are missing from Pennsylvania’s capital punishment regime and from the criminal legal system broadly,” Elizabeth Randol, legislative director of the ACLU-PA, said. “The government should not have the ultimate power of deciding who lives and who dies.”

This story first appeared in the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. It is republished under Creative Commons license.