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Pennsylvania governor says he won't sign any execution warrants, calls for abolishing death penalty

Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro, who took office last month after having been state attorney general, said “the system is fallible, and the outcome is irreversible.”
Gov. Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference in Philadelphia
Gov. Josh Shapiro speaks at a news conference in Philadelphia on Thursday.Matt Rourke / AP

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro said Thursday that he will not sign any execution warrants while in office and called on the General Assembly to abolish the death penalty.

"I will not issue any execution warrants during my term as governor. When an execution warrant comes to my desk, I will sign a reprieve each and every time," Shapiro, a Democrat, said at Mosaic Community Church in West Philadelphia, adding that the first execution warrant since he was sworn in crossed his desk last week.

"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."

Shapiro made his comments alongside state legislators, community activists and criminal justice advocates, noting that his view on capital punishment had evolved over the years.

While he was the state's attorney general, Shapiro indicated support for the death penalty in the case of Robert Bowers, the suspected gunman in the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting that left 11 people dead. Bowers' federal trial is scheduled to start in April.

Shapiro said Thursday that after having taken a close look at the criminal justice system as the state's chief law enforcement officer, he came to the realization that "the system is fallible, and the outcome is irreversible."

Pennsylvania is one of 27 states that allow the death penalty. The state has 101 inmates on death row — all men — but it hasn’t had an execution in 24 years.

Before the death penalty was reinstated in Pennsylvania in 1976, the state had executed 1,040 people, the third most of any state, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, which tracks executions across the country.

Three executions have taken place since 1995, two in May and August of that year and a third in July 1999, according to data from the state Corrections Department. All three took place under Republican Gov. Tom Ridge.

A series of Democratic leaders have voiced opposition to the death penalty, including his predecessor, former Gov. Tom Wolf, who enacted a moratorium on the death penalty in 2015.

In December, outgoing Oregon Gov. Kate Brown commuted the sentences of the 17 people on death row to life in prison without the possibility of parole and similarly referred to the practice as "immoral."

At the legislature level, Virginia is the state to have most recently abolished the death penalty legislatively. In 2021, lawmakers instead opted for a sentence of life imprisonment with no possibility for parole, data from the National Conference of State Legislatures shows.

Abolishing the death penalty in the Pennsylvania would be a heavy lift under divided government. Republicans control the state Senate, while Democrats control the House and the governor's mansion.