Gov. Josh Shapiro Wants To Kill The Death Penalty In Pennsylvania
While the former president has been going on about his dreams of televised mass executions, others have been going in the complete opposite direction and taking a stand against one of the most truly shameful of American institutions.
On Thursday, in a speech at the Mosaic Community Church in West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro made a wonderful announcement — that not only would he not allow any executions during his tenure as governor, but that he would work with the Legislature towards establishing a permanent end to the death penalty in the state. While Pennsylvania hasn't actually had an execution for about two decades, there are still more than 100 people sitting on death row in state prisons.
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In doing so, Shapiro — a former prosecutor — shared his own complicated journey from death penalty supporter to opponent. He talked about how he had met people from that very church who had been incarcerated and now help their community, and those whose family members were murdered but who didn't want to see their killers executed, and how the reaction of families from the Tree of Life synagogue shooting had changed his mind as well.
I want to be honest: My approach to capital punishment has evolved over time.
For more than a decade, including when I assumed office as Attorney General, I believed that the death penalty should be reserved for the most heinous crimes – but that it was, indeed, a just punishment for those crimes.
However, when the first capital cases came to my desk in the AG’s office, I found myself repeatedly unwilling to seek the death penalty.
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.
In 2018, a gunman walked into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood and murdered 11 Jewish people as they worshipped, in the deadliest act of antisemitism in our nation’s history.
It’s hard to imagine a more heinous crime than murdering 11 people as they pray.
And candidly, my first reaction was that the killer deserved to be put to death.
Over time, however, my belief on this topic has evolved.
I’ve spoken to victims, to families, to advocates, and to community leaders.
I listened to the families of the 11 people slain at Tree of Life and was blown away by their courage and their fortitude.
They told me, that even after all the pain and anguish, they did not want the killer put to death.
He should spend the rest of his life in prison they said, but the state should not take his life as punishment for him taking the lives of their loved ones.
That moved me.
And that’s stayed with me.
This is less uncommon than people may think. Many death penalty supporters feel that what they are doing, ultimately, is "for the victims and their families," so that they can get closure and move on with their lives. I think a lot about this one lady featured in the Paradise Lost documentary series who, when the question of the West Memphis Three potentially being innocent was brought up, said something like "But those families lost their sons, someone's gotta pay." But the truth is, victim's families are just as divided on this as the rest of us are and many of them are even involved in activism and demonstrations to keep the person who killed their family member from being executed.
In December, a group of the families of murder victims rallied together at the North Carolina governor's mansion to protest the death penalty. Megan Smith, a member of the group whose parents were murdered by someone now sitting on death row, wrote the following in an extremely moving op-ed in the Charlotte Observer.
We are often told that society must continue to seek the death penalty to get justice for the families of victims. In the years since my parents’ murders, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what justice means. I understand it better now as everyone in a situation getting what they need — which includes among other things accountability for offenders and help to families to put the pieces back together after enormous loss.
To move toward the true definition of justice, we must reckon with the conditions that foster violence and use our resources to instead build strong, supportive communities that prevent crime before it happens and address trauma after it does.
This sentiment is also frequently shared by living victims of crimes, a majority of whom are concerned that prison is making people worse and would prefer that more money be invested in preventative measures and rehabilitative programs than in prisons. It would also be nice if we could take some of that money and spend it on victims compensation (that doesn't disappear into the ether, Illinois) so that victims and their families do not go broke from medical bills and other problems as a result of being the victim of a crime. The more radical among us might even say that it should cost absolutely no money to be the victim of a crime or the family of a victim of a crime (who often require mental health care) and that there should be no such thing as a GoFundMe for a mass shooting victim who cannot pay their medical bills (though perhaps we should make the NRA pay for that or fund it with a tax on guns).
"As Attorney General, I had the privilege of seeing our criminal justice system up close as the chief law enforcement officer," Shapiro said during the speech. "Through that experience, two critical truths became clear to me about the capital sentencing system in our Commonwealth: The system is fallible, and the outcome is irreversible."
He added that while many other governors have commissioned study after study on the death penalty, believing they can reform the system and make it work, that it is "flawed but fixable," he does not believe it is. He's right. If you kill an innocent person, that's not fixable. They're dead and they're not coming back. The thing about the death penalty is that the states that have it don't have it because it works and is effective, they have it because people like it. But why work so hard and spend so much money just to justify an institution that is "flawed but fixable" when one could instead spend that time, effort, and money coming up with something that might actually make people safer and do something to help victims and their families?
If Pennsylvania outlaws the death penalty, it will be the 26th state to end state-sponsored killings entirely, making it so a majority of states no longer engage in this grotesque, unjust, and unnecessary practice.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse