It's time to end the death penalty once and for all

York Dispatch editorial board

Gov. Josh Shapiro followed in predecessor Gov. Tom Wolf's footsteps, announcing that he would refuse to sign execution warrants while urging legislative action to ban the death penalty.

"The commonwealth should not be in the business of putting people death," Shapiro said, in public remarks. "I believe that in my heart."

As citizens of the commonwealth, we agree.

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

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Indeed, it's time for Pennsylvania — and the 26 other states that still have a death penalty on their books — to get rid of it once and for all. Wolf and Shapiro's de-facto moratorium kept the blood off their hands, but this institution is still inflicting psychological and even monetary pain that we should no longer tolerate.

Since 1693, Pennsylvania has executed 1,043 prisoners but only three since 1976 — all of them inmates who voluntarily waived their right to appeal. Nonetheless, more than 100 people remain on Death Row, as some prosecutors continue to pursue the death penalty despite the increasing futility of the practice.

We've known about how costly and time-consuming the sentence is for decades.

In 2020, then-Auditor General Eugene DePasquale's office estimated that the death penalty cost taxpayers a combined $1.06 billion between 1978 and 2018, due in large part to the expense associated with appeals process. Of the larger figure, $277 million was spent by prosecutors on cases in which a jury returned a different sentence. Another $530 million was spent prosecuting inmates who were no longer on Death Row as of 2020.

The expenses continue to grow as prosecutors continue to seek the death penalty and inmates continue to fight for their lives in anticipation that, one day, the commonwealth will elect a governor who doesn't mind signing a death warrant and living with blood on their hands.

Aside from the expense, the death penalty is deeply flawed.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, at least 11 innocent people have been freed from Death Row in recent years, reflecting a larger inequality in our justice system: Defendants who lack the means to pay for their own attorneys are more likely to be convicted — and more likely to receive the death penalty.

"I have been very disappointed, and frankly disheartened, with the quality of the representation accorded to indigent capital defendants in far too many of these cases," former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Saylor, a Republican, said in 2013.

Among the states that continue to carry out death penalties, horrific bungled executions are increasingly the norm due to the global inaccessibility of the drugs used to perform them. Instead of the quiet, humane deaths some death penalty advocates would have you believe, lethal injection is the very definition of cruel.

A 2020 NPR report found that many autopsy results found that the lungs of executed inmates weighed two to three times that of a normal human lung — because the drugs essentially caused these inmates to drown in their own fluids.

"It would be a feeling of drowning, a feeling of suffocation — a feeling of panic, imminent doom," pulmonologist Jeffrey Sippel told NPR.

There are proposals circulating in both the state House and the state Senate that would abolish the death penalty once and for all.

It's time for our lawmakers to act on them.