The Governor and the Death Penalty

Governor Shapiro’s decision to continue the moratorium on executions and call for legislation to end the death penalty deserve praise and support as being just, smart, moral, and good criminal justice policy.

As the Governor said, “The system is fallible, and the outcome is irreversible.”

Pennsylvania’s death penalty process has been a failure – it has not eliminated the effects of racial bias; it is error-prone; it has swept up those ineligible for the most severe punishment there is; and it continues to place at risk the truly innocent.  Pennsylvania’s own data prove each of these points.

After years of study, the bipartisan Joint State Government Commission issued a report in June 2018 titled CAPITAL PUNISHMENT IN PENNSYLVANIA.   Race was the ‘thumb on the scales’ in death penalty case.   White victim cases result in the imposition of a sentence of death at over twice the rate where the victim is black:  death sentences returned at penalty trials were at 45% (31/69) in cases with white victims and 20% (15/74) with Black victims.

Although the Eighth Amendment categorically excludes those with severe intellectual disability, as of 2018 Pennsylvania’s death row population had between 4% and 15% of its population with IQs that would make them ineligible for death sentences.  The ‘system’ simply failed to screen them out.

Those with intellectual disabilities may be factually guilty of the murder charges, but Pennsylvania has had another risk of error – executing the truly innocent.  Eleven people sentenced to death have been exonerated after courts have reviewed their cases and upheld their sentences.  These exonerations were often opposed by prosecutors who claimed ‘the system works.’

And then there are the lawyers.  It is fair to call death penalty practice the ‘brain surgery’ of criminal law.   But Pennsylvania relies on under-resourced lawyers with no state funding and a resulting 150 cases overturned because of mistakes by judges or prosecutors that defense counsel missed or errors they themselves made.    The total overturned for one form of error or another? Well over 300.

Ending capital punishment is smart criminal justice policy.  There remains no proof that it deters; without it, cases will go to trial much more quickly; the opportunities for error are fewer; and the appeals process will not run for decades, bringing some closure to victim family and friends.

And the cost savings will be immense – capital trials cost more, death row incarceration costs more.  One estimate was an added cost to Pennsylvanians of $2 million dollars per capital case resulting in a death sentence.  The death penalty does not make us safer – and the money saved could go to smart crime reduction policies or victim services.

But what about a sense of justice for the victims’ survivors?  Some oppose execution while others are for it, studies show that an execution often brings no closure, and no fair capital punishment system can rest on whether a victim’s family wants a particular punishment.   There are other ways to support family and loved ones.

All of these are compelling policy reasons to end capital punishment in Pennsylvania.  They are also moral reasons – one cannot support laws that lead to biased judgments, risk executing innocents, and tolerate high rates of error.

There is another moral reason for Pennsylvania to eliminate capital punishment – keeping it places us in the bad company of North Korea, Iran, China and Saudi Arabia.

Governor Shapiro said it most eloquently: “The Commonwealth shouldn’t be in the business of putting people to death. Period. I believe that in my heart. This is a fundamental statement of morality. Of what’s right and wrong. And I believe Pennsylvania must be on the right side of this issue.”

The Governor is right.


A version of this piece was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer.




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