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Pennsylvania's Shapiro moves against the death penalty, gives note to DOJ's Garland
“The system is fallible, and the outcome is irreversible.” A message from a changed politician, but will Biden's attorney general hear him? Also: The letter on the NYT's trans coverage.
On Thursday, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro ended his first month in office by announcing that he would not allow any executions to go forward under his watch and calling for an end to the death penalty in the state.
He also sent a message to the Biden administration about what a younger generation of Democratic politicians see as the path forward on capital punishment.
“The system is fallible, and the outcome is irreversible,” the Democrat said. “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.”
Pennsylvania is one of eight states with more than 100 people on death row, according to data from the Death Penalty Information Center. At the same time, it’s been more than two decades since Pennsylvania last carried out an execution.
To that end, Shapiro — the former state attorney general — urged the legislature to get rid of capital punishment altogether in Pennsylvania, an uphill battle given the Republican majority in the state’s Senate.
“Pennsylvania should do what 25 other states have done in outlawing the death penalty or refusing to impose it — including many of our neighbors such as New Jersey, Maryland, and West Virginia,” he said in his prepared remarks, noting that there is Republican support for ending capital punishment.
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In announcing his positions, Shapiro acknowledged that his “approach to capital punishment has evolved over time.” He is a politician with an eye on the future — and, likely, a presidential run at some point in that future. As such, it’s worth looking closely at what he said Thursday.
In addition to the news itself, there are two aspects of Shapiro’s statement that stand out to me.
First, is his discussion of what should replace the death penalty.
The people who are on death row in our Commonwealth have committed serious crimes.
They deserve to be put behind bars for a good long time, if not for life.
This might seem like a statement of fact, but Shapiro’s understanding — and expression — that there is a possibility that some of those people on Pennsylvania’s death row should not die in prison is a break with the past.
Even among many politicians who oppose the death penalty, their refrain — and partial justification for their position — is that those currently sentenced to death and others who commit comparable crimes in the future will spend the rest of their lives in prison.
It is notable that Shapiro did not justify his position with that backstop.
Additionally, Shapiro gave extensive remarks about the deadly Tree of Life synagogue mass shooting — and the desire of those affected not to see the death penalty sought against the killer.
“They told me, that even after all the pain and anguish, they did not want the killer put to death,” Shapiro said. “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.”
The statement was, on its face, a statement about Shapiro’s own changed views of the death penalty over the course of his public life. It was also, however, a pointed comment about the federal government.
The upcoming trial for Robert Bowers, the man accused in the 2018 shooting that left 11 dead, is a federal trial. Pennsylvania prosecutors in Allegheny County have agreed to hold off on their case until the federal case is resolved.
Shapiro’s comments, then, were not just about his own movement on the issue. They were also a reminder to Attorney General Merrick Garland that the decision by Attorney General William Barr to pursue the death penalty in the case was not made with the support of the community affected.
As the Justice Department under Garland continues its moratorium on federal executions, it is nonetheless pursuing a death sentence this week against Sayfullo Saipov in New York — a state that has not had an enforceable death penalty for nearly two decades — and facing questions about its “confusing” messages on the death penalty.
In the coming months, Garland will have to decide whether he will allow a second capital trial to happen on his watch — and now Shapiro, the new Democratic governor of the state where that trial is to take place, has made clear that Garland would be doing so not just against the wishes of the family members of the victims, but also against the policy preferences of the governor.
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NYT LETTER: On Wednesday, I was one of the hundreds of signatories to a letter calling on The New York Times to apply its own editorial standards to its news reporting on transgender, non-binary, and gender nonconforming people — specifically its coverage of trans children.
Despite the overheated rhetoric of Andrew Sullivan — who decided to call me out by name and then jump in my replies — the letter does not call on anyone to “suppress reporting” and was not a “profoundly disappointing betrayal of journalism.”
To the contrary, the letter simply seeks accurate reporting that properly identifies sources and contextualizes the efforts of those who are seeking to criminalize provision of medical care for transgender minors and gender nonconforming behavior of adults and who have acknowledged — to The New York Times! — broader aims to end trans medical care altogether.
I likely will have more to say on this in the future, but I wanted to make sure that Law Dork subscribers at least saw the letter.
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