About Shapiro’s sudden death penalty conversion

People are permitted to change their mind about their convictions, but they should have a good reason for the change.

According to Gov. Josh Shapiro in a broadcast interview, he said he abandoned his long-held belief in capital punishment in part because his son asked a question he could not answer: If killing is wrong, asked the preteen, why should the government employ it against murderers?

Death by lethal injection (Photo: NBC News)

Shapiro said he could not answer. I can.

But first — I have nothing but respect for people who oppose the death penalty. Their reasons usually are morality and revulsion at giving the state the power of life and death. I ask only for respect from them for my position.

As to junior Shapiro’s question, “execution” is not murder, which is a crime. The taking of a criminal’s life by the state, under strict rules, is every bit as justified as soldiers killing the enemy in war. It is a form of self-defense. It is not tasteful, but it is permitted.

Yes, it does sound contradictory — the taking of a life to protect life.

But it is true. Let me give you a real-world example.

Philadelphia’s Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility is named after two corrections officers who were murdered by an inmate at Holmesburg Prison in 1973. Their lives were taken by someone safely in prison, or so we thought.

If we ban the death penalty, even the most heinous murderers will be sentenced only to life in prison, and they will have, in effect, a license to kill anyone they want.

We can’t protect ourselves by putting them in solitary confinement forever. The courts ban that. Sometimes it seems murderers get more protections than honest citizens.

Speaking of heinous, Shapiro’s previous position had been support for the death penalty for “some of the most heinous cases,” which strikes me as somewhat restrictive and illogical. If the death penalty is “immoral,” there should be no exceptions.

As recently as 2019, as Pennsylvania attorney general, Shapiro opposed Philly D.A. Larry Krasner’s attempt to get the state Supreme Court to declare the death penalty unconstitutional.

Shapiro supported capital punishment then.

He supported it in 2018 when he said the killer of 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue “deserved to be put to death.”

Compare that to last week’s statement that opposing the death penalty “is a fundamental statement of morality.”

It was moral in 2018 and 2019, but not today?

His conversion was more sudden than Paul’s on the road to Damascus, and a whole lot more suspect.

He said he was swayed in part by some of Tree of Life victims’ families saying they did not wish the killer put to death.

Other families did not agree with that, so why not listen to them? Anyway, victims don’t get to decide punishment — that is the role of the legislature that writes the law, and the juries that decide guilt or innocence.

Shapiro’s sudden conversion comes conveniently after his successful campaign to become governor. 

In 2015, a small minority of Pennsylvanians, 54%, favored life imprisonment over capital punishment. That was the most recent nonpartisan poll I could find, and was before our post-Covid crime explosion. I can’t say that percentage would stand today. With homicide reaching record levels, I doubt it. For someone who is usually politically deft, this seems like exactly the wrong time for Shapiro to lighten up on punishing criminals

My feeling is Shapiro all along planned to refuse to sign any death warrants,  extending Gov. Tom Wolf’s moratorium.

One evergreen reason for the death penalty, its supporters say, is deterrence.

But is doesn’t deter, say critics.

It does deter at least one person — the murderer, I say. So does life in prison, you say? Remember Curran and Fromhold. They were murdered in a prison. Life means life for the inmate (maybe) but it could mean the death penalty for someone else. For lifers, there is no effective punishment without capital punishment.

The other thing about deterrence is that for it to work, punishment must swiftly follow the crime.

If I may use a metaphor: If your toddler plays with matches when he is 4 and you punish him when he’s a junior in college, there’s no deterrence. And that’s about the length of time between sentencing and execution because of endless appeals. There’s almost no cause and effect.

I don’t trust life without parole because there have been many cases of life without parole being imposed, but decades later some soft-hearted judge reverses the orders of the jury. 

Some say life without parole is a worse punishment than the death penalty.

If that’s true, why do an amazing number of accused murderers accept a plea deal for life in prison? No, three hots and a cot, plus free TV and workout room, looks somewhat like a retirement community.

As a side issue, taking someone’s freedom for life isn’t that much different from taking a life, is it? 

My idea of capital punishment is like Bill Clinton’s on abortion — safe, legal and rare.

“Safe” is the wrong word for employing death, but we can make it painless, or instantaneous. In Pennsylvania, should it be employed, the method is lethal injecttion. 

One of Shapiro’s qualms was that the death penalty is fallible and irreversible. 

We can’t do anything about irreversible, but we can make it infallible by employing the sentence only when the verdict is 100% certain. We can also install safeguards to prevent it from falling so heavily on the poor and nonwhite.

Shapiro admitted that before a death warrant gets to his desk the perpetrator has been convicted by a jury, and their case has withstood numerous appeals. He said he is not questioning the integrity of the judicial system. Except he did, when he said the system was fallible.

As a practical matter, having the death penalty on the table gives prosecutors a weapon to use to convince the accused to take a plea deal, eliminating the anguish of a trial for the victim’s family, as well as the expense to the community.

Because it is irreversible, capital punishment must be just. It must also be swift, and available. Shapiro should give this another think.

19 thoughts on “About Shapiro’s sudden death penalty conversion”

  1. He should give it another think, but he won’t. Shapiro has had his eye on the Whitehouse since his first elective office. You can’t win the Democratic primary unless you’ve anti death penalty.

  2. Our new Governor always had his eyes on the Whitehouse.He will do whatever it takes to get that job. I wouldn’t be surprised if he wasn’t trying to replace John Fetterman as Senator so he can get one step closer to his main goal the Whitehouse.

  3. Excellent piece. I especially like the analogy of waiting to punish a four-year old until he’s in college. Murderers have a better chance of dying on death row than being given the needle. Society not only has the right to protect itself, it has the duty. To turn a murderer loose to murder again is a crime against humanity. Shapiro is a politician: basically, a liar who will say or do just about anything to get elected and stay in office. The man who wrote the book on that tactic is Ted Kennedy.

  4. Shapiro’s election would have been more difficult if he had taken an anti- death penalty position. Also, If Fetterman had disclosed that he had a history of depression, Dr Oz probably would have won.Real dishonest politics. Do you remember what happened to Tom Eagleton when the press found out he had psychiatric issues? Just sayin….

  5. I would suggest that your use of the murder of two correctional officers is cherry picking, Stu. What percentage of prisoners in jail for life for murder have killed while in jail? I would gather it is so small that it is incalculable. Given that, using it to bolster your argument here seems disingenuous. And “swift justice” in a murder trial is a virtual impossibility, as it should be. That’s simply not how the justice system works. Although you do make some other points that resonate, I always fall back to this basic opinion: a truly civilized society cannot kill its own citizens for any reason. And yes, I will ALWAYS believe that a life spent in an 8×8 box is far worse than death despite what you say above. You just have to be 100% certain (by law) that there is NEVER an option for parole. And that is certainly do-able. Simply, families of murder victims want revenge, and I totally get that. I’m sure I would, too. But it never does bring back the victims. They are forever gone, sadly. I know I am a bit of an idealist in this, but so be it. It’s my opinion and I stand by it wholeheartedly.

    Oh, and to Benedict above: NO ONE is suggesting society allow a murderer to kill again. Literally no one. So any argument you attempted to make is blown out of the water but that ridiculous comment. Nice job.

    1. I read and re-read what I wrote, and nowhere did I see that I wrote what you suggest, in re: turning murderers loose. Read it again, slowly.

    2. I use Curran-Fromhold as an example of not being safe from “lifers.” I can understand the view that you do not want to give the state the authority to take a life. Under unique circumstances, I disagree.

  6. Another well thought out commentary. The safest place in Pennsylvania is probably the State’s “Death Row”. Once again we are reminded of Machiavelli’s observation that “All ethics and all morals are subordinate to political expediency.”

  7. Stu,
    Great points, I agree, [mostly].
    It probably isn’t a deterrent except for once someone is
    serving life in prison as you said,
    but it is justice. Mumia Abu-Jamal should have
    been executed years ago, and the [alleged]
    killer of Temple Officer Fitzgerald is also a prime candidate.

  8. Stu: Marty Davis here. FYI: LinkedIn pulled the plug permanently on my account. I’m attempting to get it back. Marty

  9. Thank you for writing and sharing this Stu.
    Good points
    Well written
    Easy to understand.

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