Gov. Josh Shapiro called on the state legislature to end the death penalty in Pennsylvania on Thursday, marking the first time a governor has formally asked the General Assembly to abolish the controversial sentence, reported The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Inside a West Philadelphia church, Shapiro also reiterated what he told reporters last month: That he would extend the execution moratorium put in place by former Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf eight years ago.
“The Commonwealth shouldn’t be in the business of putting people to death, period,” Shapiro said. “At its core, for me, this is a fundamental statement of morality, of what’s right and wrong in my humble opinion. And I believe as governor that Pennsylvanians must be on the right side of this issue.”
Pennsylvania’s last execution was the 1999 lethal injection of Gary Heidnik, who raped and tortured six women he kept chained in the basement of his Franklinville home, then killed and dismembered two of them.
Shapiro, a Democrat and the former Attorney General, previously supported the death penalty “for some of the most heinous cases,” he said. But after recent conversations with advocacy groups and victims’ families who opposed the measure, he said, his stance has shifted.
After the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in 2018, Shapiro said he believed the killer “deserved to be put to death.”
But some of the victims’ families didn’t want that.
“I was truly moved by their courage and by their grace,” Shapiro said. “That has stayed with me, all of these conversations have stayed with me.”
He also recalled speaking with Lorraine “Ms. DeeDee” Haw, an organizer with the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration, last year, and how she told him she did not believe her brother’s killer should be put to death.
Thursday’s announcement is the “first step” in ending the death penalty in Pennsylvania, Shapiro and lawmakers said. No specific bill to end the death penalty has been introduced yet this session. Once legislation is introduced, it would need to pass the razor-thin Democratic majority in the House and the GOP-controlled Senate before it reaches Shapiro’s desk.
Until state law is changed, Shapiro said he would not sign any death warrants. There are 101 people on death row in Pennsylvania, according to state corrections data.
Pennsylvania once performed the third-highest number of executions in the country, and had the nation’s fourth-largest death row for two decades, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. In recent years, though, its use has declined.
Since 1976, the Commonwealth has only carried out three executions, all under former Republican Gov. Tom Ridge.
Still, State House Republicans signaled Thursday that they were not yet ready to join Shapiro’s call for an end to the death penalty, saying “now is not the time to stop holding criminals to the highest levels of accountability for the most heinous crimes.
“Removing this measure of accountability and deterrence from prosecutorial discretion is at best tone deaf to the concerns of Pennsylvanians, and at worst, disrespectful to the victims of the most serious crimes in our society,” GOP House members said in a statement.
Shapiro’s announcement came just days after he declined to sign his first death warrant — for 27-year-old Rahmael Sal Holt, who shot and killed a police officer near Pittsburgh in 2017.
The legal history of the death penalty in Pennsylvania is complex. In 1972, the State Supreme Court ruled that the Commonwealth’s death penalty sentencing procedures were unconstitutional, and death row sentences were judicially reduced to life.
The legislature reinstated the death penalty in 1974, but three years later, that law was also found unconstitutional. In 1978, the legislature passed a revised version of the law allowing executions. But in 2015, Wolf placed a moratorium on executions, citing concerns about wrongful convictions and racial bias.
For those same reasons, Civil Rights groups have long called for an end to the death penalty. According to the ACLU, people of color have accounted for 43% of all executions since 1976, and represent 55% of those currently awaiting execution.
Racial bias was cited as a factor in what prosecutors now say was the wrongful conviction of Alexander McClay Williams, a Black Pennsylvania teenager who at 16 became the youngest person in Pennsylvania history to be put to death.
In 1931, an all-white jury convicted Williams in the stabbing death of a white woman. But a Delaware County judge overturned his conviction after prosecutors raised questions about his guilt, and he was posthumously vindicated last year.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner has said he would never seek the death penalty, and has fiercely advocated for its abolition, though his spokesperson, Jane Roh, said the office has no blanket policy on the issue.
In 2019, Krasner’s office filed a brief with the Commonwealth Supreme Court, asking it to invoke its King Bench power to declare the death penalty unconstitutional. The Attorney General’s Office, under Shapiro, filed a brief opposing Krasner’s petition, Roh said, and ultimately, the high court effectively kicked the issue back to the General Assembly.
Several states have changed their capital punishment laws over the last 10 years, including Maryland and Virginia. New Jersey was the first state to abolish executions in 1965.
Twenty-seven states, including Pennsylvania, still have capital punishment on the books.
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