Bipartisan effort under way in state House to repeal death penalty

Olivia Miller
York Dispatch
2010 file image of the death penalty chamber at California’s San Quentin State Prison. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Two state lawmakers who don't usually see eye to eye are putting their differences aside for a common goal — repealing the death penalty. 

State Rep. Christopher Rabb, D-Philadelphia County, and Frank Ryan, R-Lebanon County, are cobbling together a bipartisan coalition and drafting legislation in an attempt to eliminate capital punishment in Pennsylvania. 

"One innocent life taken at the hands of the state is too many," the bill memo states. 

Rabb said it was important for this repeal to be with "bipartisan support."

"It cannot be overstated how rare it is that I'm shoulder to shoulder with a conservative Republican," he said. "Getting two people who are so far apart on the spectrum is like seeing a unicorn riding a leprechaun."

State Rep. Chris Rabb

Criminal justice reform is a "big issue" for Republicans, Ryan said, but his main focus is to go about it "the right way." He cited his faith as a primary motivation for the effort. 

"We didn't want to create a problem somewhere else," he said. "We want to make sure there's no unintended consequences or a knee(-jerk) reaction later on."

Capital punishment has long been a contentious issue in Pennsylvania. Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, halted all executions in 2015. The issue often causes rifts within party caucuses. Some prosecutors criticized Wolf's moratorium, while others backed it. 

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Last year, Wolf's GOP challenger, Scott Wagner, lampooned Wolf's moratorium. 

But Rabb and Ryan listed five reasons why the death penalty in Pennsylvania should be repealed.

One is the expense: The three most recent executions in Pennsylvania — two in 1995 and one in 1999 — cost taxpayers $816 million, he said. It's estimated that death penalty cases cost $2 million more than non-death penalty cases, according to the repeal. 

It's also "cruel" to the victims' families, Ryan said. 

"There's so many appeals that it reopens wounds every time," he said. "I can't imagine what that would be like."

State Rep. Frank Ryan

It's also not a deterrent, the bill sponsors say. Homicide rates in states with the death penalty are about 18% higher than those without. 

And the death penalty disproportionately hammers the poor, Ryan contends. 

"If you don't have the money to defend yourself, you're on your own," he said.

There are nearly 140 people on death row in Pennsylvania, according to the state Department of Corrections. 

Twice as many convicts in Pennsylvania have been exonerated than have been executed in recent years. The bill's sponsors contend that fact alone means the chances of executing an innocent individual are unacceptably high. 

Mike Straub, spokesman for the House GOP caucus, said it's too early to gauge how much support the legislation would receive among that chamber's majority party. There's yet to be talk of a companion bill in the Senate. 

"If you watch what goes on day to day in Harrisburg, most work together far more than they disagree," Straub said. "The folks here are a little bit more connected regardless of party."

The short-term goal for the repeal is to have a hearing by the end of the calendar year, Ryan said. 

Until then, they're searching for co-sponsors, currently 16, before introducing the repeal, Rabb said.  

Ryan said he was "surprised" there wasn't much blowback when the bill memo was filed, but he acknowledges there are colleagues who disagree with him.

Kathleen Lucas, the executive director of Pennsylvania for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said she supports Rabb's and Ryan's death penalty repeal. 

"It's a matter of fairness," Lucas said. "We want a just system where everyone is treated fairly, and we don't have that right now."

Half of the states have the death penalty on the books, though California Gov. Gavin Newsom has also issued a moratorium on it. Pennsylvania is the only state in the Northeast with the death penalty.