Bipartisan Effort to Repeal Death Penalty Growing in Pennsylvania

One year after a state task force issued a report calling Pennsylvania’s death penalty seriously flawed and in need of major reform, bipartisan opposition to capital punishment is surfacing in the Commonwealth’s legislature. A group of legislators, led by Lebanon County Republican State Rep. Frank Ryan (pictured, left) and Philadelphia Democrat Chris Rabb (pictured, right), have prepared legislation to repeal Pennsylvania’s death penalty and are circulating the proposal for co-sponsorship. “The odd couple pairing” of legislators Rabb and Ryan—whom veteran Harrisburg reporter John Micek describes as “one of the most progressive Democrats in the state House [and] one of its most conservative members” — “is becoming more commonplace as Republican lawmakers across the country not only reevaluate their support for capital punishment, but also step up to sponsor bills calling for its elimination,” Micek wrote in the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.

Ryan’s reasons for opposing the death penalty — both moral and pragmatic — are typical of the growing number of Republic legislators who are sponsoring abolition bills. Considered a “tax and spending hawk,” Ryan says, “I empathize with victims. But from a public policy standpoint, it’s better to do life in prison without parole than for the state to start picking who is going to die. And from a public policy perspective, I’ve found that the justice system is not as responsive to those with less economic clout.” Ryan also opposes capital punishment on moral grounds, citing his pro-life beliefs. Rabb also cites a range of pragmatic concerns as grounds for abolishing capital punishment. “There’s no study that shows that a death penalty is a deterrent,” he said. “There’s no study that shows the death penalty is without flaw.” A Reading Eagle study estimated that the cost of Pennsylvania’s death-penalty since the state’s capital punishment law was enacted in 1978 was $816 million higher than the cost of life without parole. “What could we better use $100, $200, $250 million for?” Rabb said. “A lot of stuff.” State Sen. Sharif Street, a Democrat from Philadelphia who will be sponsoring the abolition bill in the Senate, said “[t]he overwhelming cost, disparate application of the death penalty, compounded by human error and its historically arbitrary and racist implementation in our country, make it unfit for any use in an efficient and truly just system.”

Ryan and Rabb both believe the bill will attract bipartisan sponsorship. Ryan, a decorated Marine veteran of the war in Iraq, says “I’ve gotten no blowback from any of my Republican colleagues. I had one say, ‘Oh my god Frank, you’re soft on crime,’ and then he said, ‘By the way, good bill. I’ll co-sponsor it.’” Other Republican legislators have expressed uncertainty about capital punishment. Sen. Pat Stefano, a Republican from Fayette County in the southwest corner of the state said “I am not much in favor of it because it does not deter any criminals. We have to analyze every dollar we spend, and here we’re spending millions and millions of dollars with no effect.” Nonetheless, he said, “I’d prefer that we keep it on the books so prosecutors can use it as a bargaining tool.”

More than half of the 408 people sentenced to death since Pennsylvania reinstated the death penalty have had their sentences reversed on appeal, with most resentenced to life in prison or a term of years. Six people have been exonerated – twice as many as have been executed – and other likely innocent death-row prisoners whose convictions were overturned in the courts have been released after pleading no contest to crimes they say they did not commit. The rate at which Pennsylvania prosecutors have sought the death penalty has fallen by more than 70% since 2004 and juries imposed one new death sentence in 2018, a record-low.

Pennsylvania is the only remaining Northeastern state to authorize the use of the death penalty, and Governor Tom Wolf has imposed a moratorium on executions. All three states along the Commonwealth’s southern border – Delaware, Maryland, and West Virginia – also have abolished capital punishment.

(Deb Erdley, Death penalty repeal movement surfaces in Pa. Legislature, Tribune-Review, May 31, 2019; John L. Micek, Study: Republicans are abandoning the death penalty in record numbers, Pennsylvania Capital-Star, May 3, 2019; Katie Meyer, PA’s death penalty opposition gets a bipartisan push, WITF, April 30, 2019.) See Recent Legislative Activity.