Pennsylvania Governor Shapiro Calls for Abolition of Death Penalty

Marking the first time a governor has formally asked the General Assembly to abolish the controversial practice, Pennsylvania Democratic Governor Josh Shapiro called on the state legislature to end the death penalty in Pennsylvania.

Addressing elected officials and local activists gathered at Mosaic Community Church on Thursday, Shapiro announced he will not sign any execution warrants as governor and will sign a reprieve each and every time an execution warrant comes to his desk.

In his stand, Gov. Shapiro is following the steps of former Pennsylvania Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who similarly granted reprieves to death row prisoners at risk of execution and issued a moratorium on executions during his first year in office in 2015.

Shapiro said that the Tree of Life shooting in 2018, in which a gunman, Robert Bowers, killed 11 people after opening fire in a Pittsburgh, Pa., synagogue in October 2018, was particularly influential in his shift on the issue.

Bowers is set to stand trial in April, more than four years after the shooting.

In that instance, Shapiro’s first reaction was that the killer deserved to be put to death but, over time, his belief on this topic has evolved especially after the victims’ families reportedly told him that they did not want the killer to receive the death penalty despite their losses.

As Shapiro pointed out, his views on the death penalty have evolved over time and for more than a decade. He previously served as the Keystone State’s attorney general and even during that time, he believed that the death penalty should be reserved only for the most heinous crimes.

He stressed that while serving as AG, he became increasingly aware that the capital sentencing system is fallible and has irreversible consequences, making him believe that Pennsylvania shouldn’t be in the business of putting people to death and must be on the right side of this issue.

Reacting to Gov. Shapiro’s call, Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman had called it a rash approach to an issue of this magnitude, emphasizing that the families of murder victims and the critical perspective of law enforcement must be appropriately considered before implementing any changes to close access to an element of punishment.

Stressing that the legal and ethical aspects of the death penalty without question warrant careful examination before being used, Pittman underscored that the Senate Republican Caucus’ ongoing priority is protecting the society while implementing meaningful criminal justice reforms.

According to the non-profit Death Penalty Information Center, twenty-three US states and Washington, DC, have abolished the death penalty whereas  Pennsylvania California, and Oregon have a moratorium on executions issued by the governor.

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections data shows that there are currently 101 prisoners on death row in the state. Since 1978, when the death penalty was reinstated, the state of Pennsylvania has executed three people, the last one in 1999.

In 1999, Gary Heidnik was the last prisoner that was executed in Pennsylvania with the lethal injection. Heidnik was convicted of raping and torturing six women he kept chained in the basement of his Franklinville home, and then killing and dismembering two of them.

In July 2021, Attorney General Merrick Garland also issued a federal moratorium.

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