Pa. Gov. Shapiro evolves, seeks to abolish fallible and irreversible death penalty | Michael Coard

Shapiro’s view on capital punishment has evolved. And a columnist’s view of him has too. Here’s why

February 24, 2023 6:30 am
Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro, joined by members of his administration and business leaders, signed an executive order on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023, to establish the Pennsylvania Office of Transformation and Opportunity. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller)

Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro, joined by members of his administration and business leaders, signed an executive order on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023, to establish the Pennsylvania Office of Transformation and Opportunity. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller)

I must admit that as the self-described “Angriest Black Man in America,” I wasn’t always a fan of Gov. Josh Shapiro. 

By the way, I got that phrase from paraphrasing James Baldwin’s profound and precise statement that “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost all the time — and in one’s work.”

But he wasn’t talking about a destructive or violent rage that could result from being thoroughly aware of the horrors of slavery, sharecropping, convict-leasing, lynching, Jim Crow, redlining, gerrymandering, disenfranchisement, police brutality, mass incarceration, etc.

He was talking about a constructive and peaceful rage manifested in cultural pride, societal dignity, effective education, career advancement, and job creation.

Initially, I wasn’t a fan of Shapiro, a Democrat, for a number of reasons. Not the least of which was his vengeful, shortsighted, and knee-jerk position on the death penalty while serving as Pennsylvania’s elected attorney general,, which I characterize as “state-sanctioned murder.” 

However, just as he — in his own words on Feb. 16 — has “evolved” regarding the death penalty, I have evolved regarding my view of him.

On that date, Shapiro said his “first reaction [to a 2018 mass murder in Pennsylvania] was that the killer deserved to be put to death. Over time, however, my belief on this topic has evolved.” 

He continued, saying, “… [T]wo critical truths became clear to me about the capital sentencing system in our Commonwealth: The system is fallible, and the outcome is irreversible.” And he added “… I will not issue any execution warrants during my term as governor.”

But he didn’t stop there. 

He said he was  “respectfully calling on the General Assembly to work with me to abolish the death penalty in Pennsylvania — once and for all.” 

Shapiro refuses to sign execution warrants, calls on lawmakers to abolish capital punishment

And he didn’t even stop there. He then pointed out, “The Commonwealth shouldn’t be in the business of putting people to death. Period.” 

As a result of what Shapiro said, my evolution regarding him was complete. 

But it didn’t begin there. It actually began as soon as he became what I consider to be the national spokesperson against fascism when, during his gubernatorial campaign, he was on every major news station righteously railing against the fascist anti-Black, anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim, anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-transgender policies of Pennsylvania’s Republican Party.

And although Shapiro and I don’t see eye-to-eye on many issues since I’m a proud Pan-African socialist, I respect him for confronting and defeating this commonwealth’s fascistic version of a combination of South Africa’s apartheid and Gilead’s theonomy.

I also respect him for promoting the interests of America’s oldest HBCU, Cheyney University- and its students and alumni, just as his predecessor Gov. Tom Wolf did.

In a 2018 report entitled “Capital Punishment in Pennsylvania,” the bipartisan Joint State Government Commission, citing previous work done by the state Supreme Court, concluded that “[T]here are strong indications that Pennsylvania’s capital justice system does not operate in an even-handed manner. 

“…. [R]esearchers … found that African-American defendants were sentenced to death at a significantly higher rate than similarly situated non-African-Americans; researchers further concluded that one-third of African-Americans on death row in Philadelphia … would have received life sentences if they were not African-American,” the report continued. “Race was also shown to be a major factor in capital jury selection, with the prosecution striking African-Americans from the jury twice as often as non-African-Americans.”

Pa. shouldn’t wait any longer to abolish the death penalty | Friday Morning Coffee

Let’s start calling the death penalty what it is: state-sanctioned, premeditated murder. I call it that not because I’m into subjective hyperbole, but because I’m into objective definitions. 

Since a governor approves these executions, they’re state-sanctioned. And since such killings are planned (i.e., scheduled well in advance) as well as unjustified (i.e., done in the absence of an imminent threat to life or limb) — especially when a deadly weapon (i.e., lethal injection or electric chair or gas chamber or hangman’s noose or firing squad) is used — they’re premeditated. 

Accordingly, just as you and I are not legally permitted to commit murder, premeditated or otherwise, neither should state governments.

There are at least four irrefutable facts proving that capital punishment is always wrong:

  1. It’s not a deterrent. If it was, why is it that the South, which has the highest murder rate in the country, also has the most death penalty executions at about 80%, while the Northeast has the lowest murder rate but less than 1% of the executions? The data comes from the Death Penalty Information Center, a national clearinghouse on capital punishment.
  2. It’s not reasonable retribution. If it was, why do many, if not most, of the proponents constantly scream for revenge? Furthermore, aren’t we,  the civilized members of society, better than the sociopathic killers who kill to get their way? And isn’t the notion of killing killers to show that killing is wrong rather hypocritical?
  3. It’s not really religiously mandated. If it was (at least by the three faiths with the most adherents), how does a believer justify the destruction of what God, Allah, Jehovah, etc. created? In other words, since we as humans can only procreate –  and not create — how can the killing of the Creator’s creation be justified, particularly in light of the fact that such killing is not the result of the sort of on-the-spot deadly self-defense that is necessary in response to an imminent threat? And because the death penalty is not the result of such immediate self-defense, isn’t a state execution sinful for believers and unethical or immoral for non-believers?
  4. It’s not really founded on (and shouldn’t be founded on) the notion of “an eye for an eye.” If it was, then why doesn’t society rob robbers or kidnap kidnappers? Even better, why doesn’t society rape rapists? Yeah, that’s it. In the very same way our tax dollars are used to pay a state employee to kill a convicted killer through lethal injection, why don’t we hire and pay a state employee to rape a convicted rapist through sexual penetration? Savage, you say? Barbaric, you say? Uncivilized, you say? Exactly, I say – just as savage and as barbaric and as uncivilized as the death penalty.

Let’s all support Shapiro’s “evolving standard of decency” and oppose the death penalty’s “cruel and unusual punishment.”


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Michael Coard
Michael Coard

Opinion contributor Michael Coard, an attorney and radio host, is a columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune. His work appears regularly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter @michaelcoard.