The gurney in the execution chamber at Rockview State Prison in Centre County, (Pa. Dept. of Corrections photo)
As he called for an end to the death penalty on Thursday, Gov. Josh Shapiro said the only words that matter. And they’re so important, they bear repeating here:
“The commonwealth should not be in the business of putting people to death,” Shapiro said during a press conference at Mosaic Community Church in Philadelphia, the Capital-Star’s Marley Parish reported.
Mark those words.
The “commonwealth” that Shapiro was talking about isn’t an abstract. It’s not faceless. The commonwealth is every one of us. And when the state, acting on our collective behalf, takes a life, we’re all brutalized by it.
Consider these factors alone:
- The number of botched executions reached an “astonishing” level last year, according to the research by the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington D.C-based clearinghouse that tracks developments in capital law and executions nationwide. Seven of the year’s 20 execution attempts, or 35 percent, were “visibly problematic,” according to the report, either as a result of executioner incompetence, a failure to follow execution protocols, or defects in the protocols themselves.
- Since 1973, 190 former death-row prisoners have been exonerated of all charges related to the wrongful convictions that had put them on death row, research by the Death Penalty Information Center shows.
- Through 2019, more than 75% of death row defendants who have been executed were sentenced to death for killing white victims, even though in society as a whole about half of all homicide victims are African American, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
- The vast majority of those executed in 2022 were individuals with significant vulnerabilities. At least 13 of the people executed in 2022 had one or more of the following impairments: serious mental illness (8); brain injury, developmental brain damage, or an IQ in the intellectually disabled range (5); chronic serious childhood trauma, neglect, and/or abuse (12). Three prisoners were executed for crimes committed in their teens. At least four of the people executed this year were military veterans, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Read that, and then ask yourself if those are the actions of a just society, of a nation that holds itself out to the rest of the world as a beacon of freedom, of one that is rightfully quick to condemn other nations for its human rights abuses.
The answer isn’t whether Pennsylvania should abolish the death penalty, but, rather, what’s taken us so long.
For all practical purposes, Pennsylvania hasn’t had a functioning capital punishment statute since the execution of Philadelphia torture-killer Gary Heidnik in 1999.
Data from the state Department of Corrections shows that more than 100 men and women have death sentences, Parish reported on Thursday.
In 2015, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf imposed a moratorium on executions, which remains in force to this day. On Thursday, Shapiro extended it, and said he would refuse to sign execution warrants.
It is the only decision that makes any sense — until lawmakers do the just thing and get rid of capital punishment entirely.
It reinforced what most of us already know: That the death penalty is unnecessarily expensive, unevenly applied, and unfairly influenced by such factors as geography.
The sprawling and deeply troubling 280-page document also noted, as I did above, “the high number of people with intellectual disability and mental illness on death row — populations that are constitutionally protected from capital punishment. And it found the punishment had been unevenly applied, affected by factors like the race of the victim and the county where the crime occurred,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
The report’s authors concluded that “neither judicial economy nor fairness is served when the more than 97 percent of cases in which death sentences are converted to life sentences or less leave death row only after post-conviction review.”
Right now, 27 states have a death penalty statute on their books, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Last year, outgoing Oregon Gov. Kate Brown commuted the capital sentences of all 17 of the state’s death row prisoners, and instructed Oregon’s Department of Corrections to begin dismantling the state’s execution chamber, the Oregon Capital Chronicle, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, reported.
Five out of Pennsylvania’ six neighboring states, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and West Virginia, don’t have a death penalty statute, leaving Ohio as the only holdout. And as the map above shows, states with active death penalty statutes on their books are becoming geographical outliers.
But even if you don’t buy the legal, moral, and ethical reasons to scrap this brutal holdover from another era, consider the dollars and cents of it. In most instances, a death sentence is more expensive than life without parole.
Shapiro, the former two-term attorney general, said Thursday that his views on the issue had “evolved” over time. During his first bid for top cop in 2016, he supported capital punishment for heinous crimes.
But “when my son asked me why it was OK to kill someone as a punishment for killing someone, I couldn’t look him in the eye and explain why,” Shapiro told reporters Thursday.
And if we can’t justify to our children what the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union rightfully describes as “an archaic, broken policy from a bygone era,” then there’s no justifying it at all.
End it. Now.
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