Stepping up on ending capital punishment in Pennsylvania

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial board (TNS)

Pennsylvania’s costly, ineffective and immoral death penalty statute remains active, even though the state hasn’t executed anyone since 1999. With more than 100 prisoners on death row, one of the nation’s largest, the statute’s exorbitant legal costs still mount, as local prosecutors continue to try people under the death penalty, and prisoners continue to appeal convictions.

From 1978 to 2018, Pennsylvania taxpayers spent more than $1 billion on the death penalty, reported former Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale. Roughly half of that money was spent on prisoners who were later resentenced to mandatory life. Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, Pennsylvania has sentenced more than 400 people to death, but executed only three. Ten more death row prisoners in Pennsylvania were exonerated.

Newly elected Gov. Josh Shapiro, who has stated he now opposes the death penalty, can help make Pennsylvania the 24th state to abolish this imprudent, antiquated law. By declaring he won’t sign death warrants, he has already, in effect, continued the moratorium on executions that former Gov. Tom Wolf declared in 2015. Up to now, however, his low-profile remarks on the death penalty have not influenced the debate on capital punishment among the people or in the General Assembly.

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

To give the issue political salience and push legislators to act, Shapiro ought to make strong and focused public statements that will bolster support for bills in the state House and Senate that would abolish the death penalty statute. The governor can’t introduce those bills but he can, by lobbying legislators and using his bully pulpit, contribute mightily to their passage. Virginia abolished capital punishment in 2021, and it wouldn’t have happened without the forceful support of Gov. Ralph Northam.

Opposing the death penalty shouldn’t be difficult. Among other things, it is costly and risks executing the innocent. Nationwide, roughly 190 death row prisoners have been exonerated. A University of Michigan Law School study estimated that more than 4% — or 1 in 25 — of all death row defendants were wrongfully convicted.

Moreover, not a shred of evidence shows capital punishment deters violent crime; death penalty states generally have higher violent crime rates. More than half of those on Pennsylvania’s death row are Black, even though African Americans make up only 12% of the state’s population.

The death penalty has made the United States a moral outlier among nations. Executing people who no longer threaten society is little more than government-sponsored murder. It is not a question of who deserves to die — a question no one can answer. The real question is whether the state has the right to become an executioner.

Shapiro knows it does not. Now he must act. Nothing would elevate his legacy as Pennsylvania’s 48th governor more than helping to rid the state of this costly and ineffective moral stain.

— From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial board (TNS).