By David M. Greenwald
Harrisburg, PA – On Thursday, Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro announced that he will not issue any execution warrants during his term and called on the General Assembly to join nearly half of the country in abolishing the death penalty for good.
As Attorney General, Shapiro said, “I had the privilege of seeing our criminal justice system up close as the chief law enforcement officer. Through that experience, two critical truths became clear to me about the capital sentencing system in our Commonwealth: The system is fallible, and the outcome is irreversible.”
So he said, “When an execution warrant comes to my desk, I will sign a reprieve each and every time.”
But he wants to go further.
He said about previous governors, “Governors have called on lawmakers to reform the system. They’ve been open to the idea that our capital sentencing system is flawed, but fixable.”
He said, “I believe that misses the mark.”
He said, “I’m respectfully calling on the General Assembly to work with me to abolish the death penalty in Pennsylvania – once and for all. “
The announcement was welcome news to death penalty opponents.
“Given Governor Shapiro’s previous and consistent support for upholding the death penalty as Attorney General, today’s announcement that Shapiro now opposes the death penalty is a very welcome and encouraging evolution in his position,” said Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner.
Krasner said, “The Governor’s evolution today is consistent with President Biden’s previously stated opposition to executing people, as well as public opinion that continues to shift against executing people.”
He called on the AG’s office to “adjust its support for death sentences.”
He said, “The AG’s Office has consistently taken the position of defending death sentences imposed in Philadelphia County and other PA counties, including in cases where the defendants have already served decades in prison.”
Krasner noted that in 2019 his office undertook an unprecedented review of every Philadelphia death sentence over nearly four decades (1978-2017).
He said that “we found that 72% of those 155 sentences were ultimately overturned. More than half of the time, the courts cited ineffective assistance of defense counsel in overturning a death sentence imposed in Philadelphia.”
Krasner pointed out that like most places, “The death penalty in Pennsylvania overwhelmingly applies to Black and brown defendants, mentally impaired defendants, and poor defendants who cannot afford legal counsel and are assigned court-appointed lawyers.”
He explained, “It does not do what the law requires—apply the ultimate penalty to the worst offenders who commit the worst homicides. Rather, it applies the ultimate penalty to the poorest and most impaired defendants.
“There is no scientific consensus that the death penalty deters crime,” Krasner continued. “In fact, the states where the death penalty has the most support tend to have higher murder rates.”
He added, “The bulk of death sentences in Pennsylvania were imposed during a time when there were no Conviction Integrity Units, such as we have here in Philadelphia, and when violations of defendants’ constitutional rights were routine in a way we are just beginning to comprehend.”
Krasner concluded, “Pennsylvania should accept the position New Jersey’s chief prosecutors took over a decade ago: that ending the death penalty and spending the money it wastes on other things will make us safer than the death penalty ever did.”