Pa. Gov. Shapiro will not sign death warrants, calls for abolishment of death penalty

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.

Josh Shapiro gestures while speaking

Pennsylvania Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro speaks at the Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg, Pa., on Jan. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro will not sign any death warrants during his term of office. He made the announcement Thursday morning in a news conference at Mosaic Community Church in Philadelphia. He also called on the state legislature to abolish the death penalty altogether.

His decision follows the model 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 said his position has shifted since his time as the state’s top prosecutor and believed capital punishment was proper when he was Attorney General.

“I enforced the law without fear or without favor, and in some cases, fought to make sure people spent the rest of their lives behind bars. The people who were on death row in our Commonwealth have committed serious crimes. They deserve to be put behind bars for a good long time, if not for life.”

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Shapiro said his position swayed in part as he tried to explain to his son a reason for supporting executions. That reflection followed by conversations with families impacted by the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh solidified his decision to oppose capital punishment.

“I listened to the families of those 11 people. And I was truly moved by their courage and by their grace,” he said. “ They told me, and they told the world, that even after all the pain and anguish, they did not want that killer to be put to death. That’s what they said as a collective group. Yes, they think he should spend the rest of his life in prison. I do as well. But they said the state should not take his life as punishment for him taking the lives of their loved ones. That has stayed with me.”

Shapiro called upon the legislature to follow his lead and end the use of the death penalty permanently.

“I’m very aware that there are people on both sides of the aisle, and my colleagues can speak to this in greater detail than I, that there are people on both sides of the aisle who agree with me on this,” he said.  “I’m also aware that there are people on both sides of the aisle who disagree with me on this. But I believe that we need to work together on it, that we need to have an honest conversation, that we need to begin the process of not doing more studies, but passing a bill to abolish the death penalty.”

Shapiro’s decision has support got support from state Senator Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia).

“It does not work. It does not deter. In a justice system that is unjust, it does not achieve justice. Far too many times there is no justice served by the death penalty,” Hughes said.

“The death penalty is an archaic, broken policy from a bygone era,” said Elizabeth Randol, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. “We applaud Governor Shapiro for continuing the moratorium. The concepts of basic fairness, equality, and justice are missing from Pennsylvania’s capital punishment regime and from the criminal legal system broadly. The government should not have the ultimate power of deciding who lives and who dies.”

She pointed to the racial and economic disparity among those executed as evidence of a “tiered justice system” in the state.

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“Most people sentenced to death in Pennsylvania were too poor to afford private counsel, and they are disproportionately Black people. In a state with a Black population of about 12%, more than half of the people sentenced to death are Black.”

If any execution warrants come to his desk, Shapiro said he would sign a reprieve.

According to statistics from the Department of Corrections, Pennsylvania has 101 men and women on its shrinking death row. 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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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