Gov. Tom Wolf’s tenure — and, with it, his pause on executions — is waning, leaving Pennsylvania open to a revival of executions in 2023, similar to the one launched by the federal government in the twilight of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Nationwide, capital punishment is losing ground. Since 2019, Virginia, Colorado, and New Hampshire have abolished it. For many reasons, Pennsylvania should join them.
Aside from the question of morality, the debate over capital punishment is effectively over. Facts have refuted every policy argument supporting capital punishment. Wolf, rightly, called it “ineffective, unjust, and expensive.”
Since 1976, Pennsylvania has sentenced more than 400 prisoners to death. Only three, however, were executed. Others were re-sentenced to life-without-parole, had convictions overturned, or died on death row. Ten death row prisoners were exonerated — more than three times as many as were executed.
Even so, Pennsylvania’s death penalty statute cost taxpayers an estimated $800 million in trial, pre-trial, and post-sentence legal expenses — more than $250 million for each execution. Capital cases are up to 12 times as expensive as non-capital cases, a bi-partisan death penalty task force reported in 2018.
No credible evidence shows capital punishment deters crime. The only remotely relevant fact — death penalty states have higher rates of violence than non-death penalty states — suggests the opposite.
Worst of all, capital punishment carries the chilling possibility of executing the innocent. Since 1973, more than 180 U.S. prisoners who had been sentenced to death have been exonerated, the Death Penalty Information Center reports. Racial disparities on Pennsylvania’s death row are among the nation’s worst.
“Taxpayers are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a system that does nothing for Pennsylvanians,” Kathleen Lucas, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty,” told a Herald editor. “We’ve exonerated 10 men after sentencing them to death. What are we going to say when we kill an innocent person — ‘oops.’ “
The state could use money it saved by abolishing the death penalty to fund direct services to crime victims.
subhead: The moral question
Capital punishment applies to first-degree murder — typically, the most brutal cases. The avalanche of facts refuting the death penalty doesn’t address an underlying moral question: Are some crimes so egregious they, on principle, call for an execution?
A bi-partisan report, released in 2018, found systemic flaws in Pennsylvania’s death penalty statute but avoided the moral question. Victims like Sylvester and Vicki Schieber, however, could not.
In 1998, a serial rapist murdered the Schiebers’ 23-year-old daughter, Shannon, a doctoral student at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
Despite their devastation and grief, the Schiebers courageously, and successfully, opposed efforts in 2002 to impose the death penalty for Shannon’s killer. Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham eventually struck a deal for a mandatory life sentence.
“We told them we weren’t going to be a party to a killing,” Sylvester Schieber, now 75, told a Herald editor. “Nothing would bring back our daughter.”
Schieber also said a death penalty conviction would have taken decades to wind through a protracted appeals process, forcing he and his wife to repeatedly relive the details of their daughter’s death.
subhead: Ethics and law evolve
At the core of the debate on morality is a broader question: What kind of society do we want to become? Executing someone who no longer threatens the community is a state-sponsored killing, carried out in the name of the people.
A thirst for retribution and vengeance — an eye for an eye — has driven the death penalty for nearly 4,000 years, starting with Babylon’s Code of Hammurabi in 1750 BC. The ancient code of 282 laws also prescribed removing tongues, breasts, eyes, or ears for certain crimes. These macabre penalties fell within the prevailing values of ancient Babylon.
Since then, ethics, political philosophy, and laws have evolved considerably.
Today, society can’t assume a proportional response to a heinous crime, a punishment of moral symmetry, achieves a greater good. In truth, such an act only degrades the actor: The government and people who, in its name, commit it.
If Wolf seeks a legacy, pushing legislators to abolish Pennsylvania’s death penalty statute, as Gov. Ralph Northam did in Virginia, would make a promising one.
Capital punishment has made the United States a moral outlier. Pennsylvania should join 23 other states in relegating it to the ash heap of history.