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Pennsylvania Politicians Push to Abolish Death Penalty

by Chuck Sharman

On April 17, 2023, Democratic lawmakers in both chambers of Pennsylvania’s General Assembly filed bills to repeal the state’s death penalty. HB999 was introduced in the House and SB600 in the senate two months and one day after Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) – a onetime supporter of capital punishment – vowed to continue the moratorium on executions maintained for eight years by his predecessor, former Gov. Tom Wolf (D).

There have been 11 exonerations of condemned state prisoners since 1973, including five just since 2019. The last person killed by the state was Gary Heidnik in 1999, when he took a lethal injection for raping, torturing and killing six women in a pit dug in his Philadelphia basement. Of the 101 men remaining on the state’s death row – there are no women – the average age is over 53; 30 of them are 60 or over.

A task force commissioned by the General Assembly in 2012 took six years to release its findings that prisoners who are mentally ill or intellectually disabled should be disqualified from the death penalty. It also recommended funding a state capital defender office. [See: PLN, Dec. 2018, p.32.]

However, state lawmakers never replenished the $500,000 fund set up for capital defenses in 2019. The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said the state “consistently ranked at the bottom for indigent defense.”

Shapiro’s execution moratorium, like Wolf’s, was accomplished by executive order, so it could be undone by the next governor. Former Gov. Tom Ridge (R) was in office when the state last killed a prisoner; two Republicans and two Democrats followed him before Shapiro took office in January 2023.

To make the moratorium permanent, House bill was introduced by Rep. Christopher Rabb (D-Philadelphia), who said that the state’s current system “doesn’t serve anyone in terms of preventing crime in our commonwealth and leaves the door wide open for innocent people to be put to death for crimes they did not commit.”

The Senate legislation, brought by Sen. Katie Muth (D-Royersford), also pointed to “incredible risks and irreparable injustices of having the death penalty.”

“Of the 408 Pennsylvania prisoners sentenced to death between 1978 and 2015, 169 were resentenced to life, 16 were resentenced to a term of years, and 11 were exonerated,” the text read. “Therefore, the state has not only freed nearly four times the number of people it has executed in recent decades, there is a risk of executing an innocent person every time we have an execution as long as the death penalty remains on the books.”

Additional sources: AP News, Pennsylvania Capital-Star

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