Shapiro Calls on PA Lawmakers to Abolish Death Penalty: ‘Pennsylvania Should Not Be in the Business of Putting People to Death.’

Pennsylvania Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference in Philadelphia, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023. Shapiro says he won't allow Pennsylvania to execute any inmates while he is in office and calls for the state's lawmakers to repeal the death penalty. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

By Associated Press

February 16, 2023

The governor said Thursday he will not allow Pennsylvania to execute any inmates while he is in office, and called on state lawmakers to abolish the death penalty altogether.

HARRISBURG — Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro said Thursday he will not allow Pennsylvania to execute any inmates while he is in office and called for the state’s lawmakers to repeal the death penalty.

Shapiro, inaugurated last month, said he will refuse to sign execution warrants and will use his power as governor to grant reprieves to any inmate whose execution is scheduled.

In doing so, he is exercising an authority used for eight years by his predecessor, Gov. Tom Wolf, to effectively impose a moratorium on the death penalty in a state where it has been sparsely used.

Shapiro went further, asking lawmakers to repeal the death penalty and calling it fallible and irreversible.

“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,” Shapiro said in a news conference at Mosaic Community Church in West Philadelphia.

The state, he said, “should not be in the business of putting people to death.”

The first execution warrant came to his desk last week, Shapiro said.

Twenty-seven states allow the death penalty, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

On the campaign trail last year for governor, Shapiro had said he was morally opposed to the death penalty, even though he had run for attorney general in 2016 as a supporter of the death penalty for the most heinous cases. 

In his speech Thursday, Shapiro cited the 2018 murders of 11 Jewish people worshiping at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh as a turning point in his stance on the death penalty.

“My first reaction was that the killer deserved to be put to death,” Shapiro said. “Over time, however, my belief on this topic has evolved. I’ve spoken to victims, to families, to advocates, and to community leaders. I listened to the families of the 11 people slain at Tree of Life and was blown away by their courage and their fortitude. They told me that even after all the pain and anguish, they did not want the killer put to death. He should spend the rest of his life in prison, they said, but the state should not take his life as punishment for him taking the lives of their loved ones. That moved me. And that’s stayed with me.”  

Shapiro is shifting his stance amid shrinking support nationally for the death penalty.

While Wolf was governor from 2015 until last month, judges delivered eight more death sentences. In the meantime, Wolf issued eight reprieves to inmates who had been scheduled to be put to death.

Wolf had said he would continue the reprieves until lawmakers addressed inequities in the use of the death penalty, but lawmakers never did and Wolf’s reprieves remain in effect.

Wolf’s use of reprieves was upheld by the state Supreme Court in a legal challenge brought by county prosecutors, who argued that Wolf was unconstitutionally turning what had been intended to be a temporary tool into a permanent one.

Pennsylvania has 101 men and women on its shrinking death row, according to statistics from the Department of Corrections. The state has executed three people since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, as courts and now governors have blocked every other death sentence thus far.

All three men who were executed gave up on their appeals voluntarily. The state’s most recent execution took place in 1999.

Keystone managing editor Patrick Berkery contributed to this report.

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