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Chester County Press

Pa. House Committee passes bipartisan bill to end death penalty 

The House Judiciary Committee has passed with bipartisan support a bill that would end capital punishment in Pennsylvania.

The passage of HB 999 by the House Judiciary Committee on Oct. 31 came just days before Gallup released new poll results showing the death penalty falling in favor with Americans to its lowest level in half a century.

The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep Chris Rabb (D-Philadelphia), chose the number 999 for the bill. Rabb said, “If there’s any justification for state-sponsored killing, we have to be more than 99.9% sure that the people we execute did, in fact, commit the crimes they’ve been convicted of.” He recounted his conversation with his former colleague from Lebanon County, Rep. Frank Ryan, who considered himself one of the most conservative members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and a devout Catholic. Rabb said, “When we joined as co-prime sponsors, he told me that he was pro-life, no exceptions.”

HB 999 calls for a sentence of life imprisonment to follow convictions for first-degree murder.

A Gallup poll released Nov. 6 may foretell the end of capital punishment in the Commonwealth. The poll reports that when asked, “Do you support the death penalty for a person convicted of murder?” the lowest number in five decades, 44%,  said yes. For the first time since 2000, more Americans think the death penalty is applied unfairly than think it is applied fairly. The current overall 53% of Americans supporting the death penalty is the lowest support has been since 1972, according to Gallup. 

Kathleen Lucas of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty said, “The poll is further evidence of Americans turning away from the death penalty. Just last night, Marc Bookman (Atlantic Center for Capital Representation) and I spoke at an event with at least 100 people in Gwynedd, and they asked for specific actions they could take to help speed along ending capital punishment here in Pennsylvania.” 

Lucas said interest in PADP’s work has grown recently with news of the bill and as support for the death penalty has been in decline. The organization hopes to see Pennsylvania join neighboring states who’ve ended capital punishment. “We’ve been the holdout in the mid-Atlantic. Virginia just abolished its death penalty in 2021. It used to be a big death penalty state, they’re a Southern state, and they abolished it. It’s making us look stupid in Pennsylvania. Maryland abolished the death penalty in 2013, we’re left behind in our region.” 

Delaware ended its death penalty in 2016, and New Jersey ended it in 2007. West Virginia abolished its death penalty in 1965. A state-after-state trend has left Pennsylvania behind, along with Ohio. Ohio is likely to end its death penalty soon, Lucas said. Senators there introduced a bill earlier this year aiming to end Ohio’s death penalty. 

Pennsylvania Rep. Paul Schemel (R-90), also voted in favor of the bill. The practicing Catholic said that since “we can safely keep someone imprisoned where they are not going to do any harm to anyone else, we should fall on the side of life.”

Catherine Nerney of Chestnut Hill College’s Institute for Forgiveness and Reconciliation attended the House Judiciary Committee’s hearing along with Colleen Dauerbach, Director of the SSJ Center for Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation at the college. The two Sisters of St. Joseph advocated for ending the death penalty in Pennsylvania with a message centered in the dignity of all human life. 

Nerney has stated the Institute “denounces the death penalty as a denial of human dignity by refusing the potential within every human person to change and reform their lives.” She added, “We aim to restore humanity rather than destroy it. Violence only begets violence.”

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro stated in February of this year that he would not issue any execution warrants during his term, and asked the General Assembly to send him a bill abolishing the death penalty in Pennsylvania once and for all.

Marc Bookman of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation said, “It’s not surprising. We’ve learned so much more about capital punishment, and it’s obvious that the whole system in Pennsylvania and across the country is a disaster.”

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