Shapiro calls on General Assembly to abolish death penalty, refuses to sign executions

Predecessor Tom Wolf began de facto moratorium on capital punishment eight years ago
Gov. Josh Shapiro
Gov. Josh Shapiro Photo credit Mark Makela/Getty Images

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) —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.

“When my son asked me why it was okay to kill someone who killed someone else, I couldn't look him in the eye," Shapiro said.

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 Philadelphia.

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

State Senators Katie Muth, D-Royersford, and Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, and Rep. Chris Rabb, D-Philadelphia, each resubmitted legislation on Friday to repeal Pennsylvania's death penalty.

The first execution warrant came to Shaprio's desk last week, he 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.

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

His view changed in the wake of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in 2018 that killed 11 people, noting the worshippers did not want the killer put to death.

Philadelphia Democrat State Senator Nikil Saval supports the move, calling the death penalty racist, classist and cruel.

“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,” Saval said.

The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association disagrees, arguing there’s enough due process in the legal system to ensure cases meet constitutional standards.

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.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Mark Makela/Getty Images