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18 Feb 2023

A change of heart

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February 18, 2023 Category: Stateside Posted by:

After years of upholding Pennsylvania’s use of the death penalty as the Commonwealth’s attorney general, Gov. Josh Shapiro says he won’t sign death warrants as governor.

ABOVE PHOTO: Catherine Hicks, Philadelphia Branch NAACP president and SUN publisher (left) and Sandra Thompson, Esq., NAACP State Conference president, speak with Gov.Shapiro after the announcement Thursday, February 16, 2023 in West Philadelphia.   (Photo courtesy Gov. Shapiro’s office )

By Denise Clay-Murray

Earlier this month, a piece of paper came across Gov. Josh Shapiro’s desk that if signed would have set an execution date for Rahmael Sal Holt.

In 2017, Holt was convicted of murdering New Kensington police officer Brian Shaw. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the sentence in 2019, but it was never carried out because Gov. Tom Wolf placed a moratorium on executions.

While he was attorney general, Shapiro upheld death sentences. But at a press conference held at the Mosaic Community Church in West Philadelphia, he not only announced that he would continue the moratorium, but also called on the Pennsylvania legislature to stop trying to make the death penalty more “fair” and instead follow the lead of 25 other states and end it.

“We shouldn’t aim to just fix the system,” Shapiro said. “The Commonwealth shouldn’t be in the business of putting people to death. Period. 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.” 

Joined by Mayor Jim Kenney, State Rep. Rick Krajewski, and State Sens. Vincent Hughes and Nikil Saval, Shapiro talked about how his attitude toward the death penalty had changed over time. He thought that it was a just punishment for the most heinous crimes.

But once he became attorney general, he was hesitant to use it, Shapiro said. After talking with families, activists, and community leaders, he began to wonder whether or not continuing to have a death penalty made sense, he said. 

Especially when he talked with the families of the 11 people killed in the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. While he believed that the shooter needed to be put to death, the reaction of the families to that proposition made him reconsider.

“I listened to the families of the 11 people slain at Tree of Life and was blown away by their courage and their fortitude,” he said. “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.”

The governor’s stance was music to the ears of some. 

“With society dealing with so much senseless violence, the state should not be perpetuating this culture with violence of his own,” Krajewski said. “That is why I’m here to applaud Governor Shapiro for his actions, and to call on the legislature to do the right thing and abolish the death penalty. And when we finally abolish the death penalty, let’s move on to the vital work of ensuring that no one dies in prison.”

Philadelphia’s District Attorney Larry Krasner also applauded Shapiro’s change of stance and called on the office he used to hold — the Attorney General’s office — to do the same.

“My position on the state execution of human beings has been consistent since 1984, when I served as a juror in a death penalty criminal trial just prior to attending law school,” Krasner said. “Today’s announcement is welcome, and I join longtime opponents of state executions in strongly urging the Pennsylvania General Assembly and Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office to evolve now and reform their attitudes toward capital punishment, as well.”   

Much of the reason why many applauded Shapiro’s stance was because of whom the death penalty has traditionally been applied to. According to the ACLU, 55% of those awaiting execution are people of color and 43% of those executed are also members of Black and Brown communities. 

But while the legislature recognizes the issues connected to the death penalty, State Sen. Majority Leader Joe Pittman felt that Shapiro didn’t give legislators enough time to consider things, calling his decision “rash.”

“Any changes to close access to an element of punishment must appropriately consider the families of murder victims and the critical perspective of law enforcement,” Pittman said.

Currently, there are 101 inmates on the commonwealth’s death row. The last person to be put to death in the Commonwealth was Gary Heidnik in 1999.

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