Gov. Josh Shapiro wants to bring an end to capital punishment in the commonwealth.
During a press conference Thursday in West Philadelphia, the Democratic governor committed to grant a reprieve to any execution warrant that comes across his desk and called upon the General Assembly to abolish the death penalty in the state.
“The system is fallible and the outcome is irreversible,” Shapiro said. The state “should not be in the business of putting people to death.”
Shapiro, who had run for attorney general in 2016 as a supporter of the death penalty for the most “heinous” crimes, said he was morally opposed to the death penalty while on the campaign trail last year for governor. His change of course continues the death penalty moratorium set by his predecessor, former Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. Wolf issued eight reprieves to inmates who had been scheduled to be put to death during his tenure.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 27 states allow the death penalty. Pennsylvania’s neighbors, including New Jersey, Maryland and West Virginia, have legislatively abolished the death penalty and instead replaced it with a sentence of life imprisonment with no possibility for parole.
Criminal justice advocates who met with Shapiro on the campaign trail said this commitment is a sign of the type of reform-minded governor Shapiro promised to be.
“For him to within 30 days to now check off one of the key components of his criminal justice platform – and one of the more controversial components – is a good sign of how he'll govern and how he'll be in relation to community and (those) who have been advocating for and fighting for an end to mass incarceration,” Robert Saleem Holbrook, executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center, told City & State. “It's a sign of hope that there is someone now in the governor's office, who is going to listen to them and who is going to be receptive to structural criminal justice reform.”
The last state-sponsored execution in Pennsylvania occurred in 1999, when Gary Heidnik died by lethal injection for the murders of two women. There are 101 people on death row in Pennsylvania, according to state corrections data.
Shapiro said he knows legislators on “both sides of the aisle” that agree and disagree with his stance on the issue.
In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman said Shapiro sharing the announcement minutes before it was on Twitter is “a rash approach to an issue of this magnitude.”
“Protecting our society while implementing meaningful criminal justice reforms have been ongoing priorities for the Senate Republican Caucus, and we will continue to engage in criminal justice reform discussions this session,” The Indiana County Republican said in a statement. “Without question, the legal and ethical aspects of the death penalty warrant careful examination before being used.”