In a heartfelt speech at a Philadelphia church on Thursday, Gov. Josh Shapiro came out against the death penalty. He said he would not sign any death warrants and called on the legislature to abolish the ultimate punishment, which had already been on hold since Gov. Tom Wolf announced a moratorium during his term.
“When my son asked me why it was okay to kill someone as a punishment for killing someone, I couldn’t look him in the eye and explain why,” said Shapiro, a Democrat and former attorney general. “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,” Shapiro said. “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,” said Shapiro. “That moved me. And that’s stayed with me. As attorney general, I had the privilege of seeing our criminal justice system up close as the chief law enforcement officer. 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.
“I have painstakingly considered every aspect of Pennsylvania’s capital sentencing system, reflected on my own conscience, and weighed the tremendous responsibilities I have as governor.
“And I am here today in this church to tell you I will not issue any execution warrants during my term as governor,” he said. “When an execution warrant comes to my desk, I will sign a reprieve each and every time.”
He also called on the state legislature “to work with me to abolish the death penalty in Pennsylvania – once and for all.”
But law enforcement members who had to comfort people who lost loved ones to violent criminals disagreed.
“I’m surprised,” said Mike Chitwood, the retired Upper Darby police chief who spent his career in law enforcement. Chitwood said he thought Shapiro, as a former attorney general, came across as “very conservative” and tough on crime.
“I disagree with this wholeheartedly,” said Chitwood. “Here we go once again with another ‘woke’ type message. They defund the police now. They’re abolishing the death penalty. It’s just unbelievable. It’s sad. It’s a sad commentary on society. And I’m shocked that he would take that position after being the attorney general for those many years…I’m just shocked. I really am.”
Bruce L. Castor Jr., former Montgomery County district attorney now in private practice, was also surprised by Shapiro’s announcement.
“I’d be very surprised if the governor actively chooses not to follow the law,” said Castor. “However, there is nothing wrong with him calling on the General Assembly to ban the death penalty. The people, through their elected representatives, may certainly change the law. That is the way the system is designed to work.
“Certainly, the governor can and should express his preference on this or any other public policy issue,” said Castor. “He won the election. He is the leader of the commonwealth. If he convinces the General Assembly to revise the law and eliminate the death penalty, that is a representative democracy, whether I like the decision or not.”
But others support Shapiro’s stance.
“We support Gov. Shapiro’s call for the Pennsylvania General Assembly to pass legislation ending the state’s death penalty,” said Demetrius Minor, national manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. “Capital punishment does not align with our conservative principles of limited government, fiscal responsibility, and valuing life. We are eager to see bipartisan efforts advance in the Keystone State as they have throughout the country.”
“I applaud this move by the governor,” said state Rep. Mike Zabel (Drexel Hill). “Studies have shown, over and over again, that the death penalty has no special deterrent effect on crime. It has also cost Pennsylvania taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s time to abolish the death penalty.”
Bucks County resident Bill Mathesius, a former judge who was also the Mercer County, N.J. prosecutor, is no fan of the death penalty and is known in legal circles for his opinion in the Ambrose Harris murder case excoriating the death penalty process: “If the actual imposition of the death penalty requires such a Herculean effort as has been herein endured in terms of time, mental anguish and emotional expense, research, and writing (not to mention the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of public dollars in accrued actual cost in this case alone), it strongly invites, nay, compels, the pragmatic conclusion that that penalty which imposes such an extravaganza, be finally legislatively or judicially annulled as opposed to being merely nibbled to death by state and federal ducks.”
Asked to comment for this article, Mathesius said, “People commit heinous acts. I’d rather give them the opportunity to reflect on their crimes for the rest of his life.”