Two state House members, from opposite sides of the aisle, have drafted legislation to abolish the death penalty in Pennsylvania.
Reps. Frank Ryan (R – Lebanon County) and Chris Rabb (D – Philadelphia County) are the primary sponsors of the forthcoming bill, which Ryan expects to introduce in the fall.
While Republicans have long been ardent supporters of capital punishment, Ryan said he has always opposed the practice, for the same reason he opposes abortion: He believes life lasts from conception until natural death.
In a memorandum announcing the legislation, Rabb and Ryan criticize death penalty cases for costing millions of dollars, due to appeals that can drag out for decades. The legislators also criticize capital punishment for failing to deter crime.
In some cases, they add in the memo, innocent people have been executed. And Ryan said poor defendants face a higher risk of such an outcome.
“I found that the death penalty is disproportionately problematic for poor families who may not be able to get the level of judicial support I think is appropriate,” he said.
Still, the lawmaker said he held off on supporting a death penalty ban after last year’s shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue. He said he sympathizes with those who say the gunman should be executed, and that caused him to delay his support for a ban.
“But I still think at this point that it’s the right way to go,” he said, “and that we should be focusing on healing that kind of hatred and discrimination against people as opposed to the death penalty.”
Ryan noted that a number of families of murder victims have told him they support repealing capital punishment.
“Instead of giving them closure [the death penalty] just opened up another wound. … All of the reviews and the appeals that take place in a death penalty case – it was like a continual picking at a scab for them.”
Two inmates on death row are also challenging the death penalty in court. In an unusual step last December, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to hear their case before lower courts could rule on it. Attorneys are still briefing the matter.
A victory for the inmates, or the passage of a death penalty ban in the legislature, would have little practical effect, at least while Governor Tom Wolf remains in office. The governor put a moratorium on executions four years ago. It has been 20 years since the last one was carried out in Pennsylvania.