DOVER — Activists and law enforcement officials made their voices heard Wednesday on what has become one of the legislature’s most polarizing issues: capital punishment.
With a bill to repeal the death penalty getting its first committee hearing of the legislative session, dozens of citizens flocked to the Senate chamber in Legislative Hall hoping to influence what figures to be a close vote.
Introduced last week by Sen. Karen Peterson, D-Stanton, Senate Bill 40 would replace capital punishment with life without parole.
After an hour of discussion featuring more than a dozen public speakers, the Senate Judiciary Committee released the bill to the Senate, marking one step in a long process.
Sen. Peterson spoke first, arguing the death penalty is not a deterrent. She said death-penalty states have a higher murder rate than those that have eliminated it, a statement touted by other speakers.
Sen. Peterson wants Delaware to become the 19th state to abolish capital punishment.
“Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. We keep killing people to teach them that it’s wrong to kill people, and it’s not working,” she insisted, adding the death penalty is “barbaric.”
Public defender Brendan O’Neill focused on the monetary costs. The Public Defender’s Office and the Office of Conflicts Counsel spent a combined $2.6 million defending individuals facing the death penalty in fiscal year 2014, he said.
Several others cited the cost as well, arguing that with the need for multiple defense lawyers and the frequent appeals that come with a death sentence, capital punishment is several times more expensive than life without parole.
But the claims of some of the activists were disputed by the only anti-repeal speaker. Lewes Police Department Chief Jeffrey Horvath, who’s also the second vice chairman of the Delaware Police Chiefs’ Counsel, expressed doubt that eliminating the death penalty would save the state large sums of money.
More importantly, the death penalty is a deterrent, he said, contrary to the claims of several who have called for repeal.
“We hear the cost of the death penalty is exuberant,” Chief Horvath said. “We would like to see how these high numbers are reached. We think they’re exaggerated.
“With that said, the death penalty is reserved for the most shocking crimes against real people, people in our society and our community, people that we know. These are not minimal crimes and saving money should not be a priority.”
In response to arguments the death penalty is disproportionately used on minorities, he said the majority of homicides in Delaware are committed by blacks. He also disagreed it is a cruel practice, noting the Supreme Court has ruled “certain crimes are themselves so grievous an affront to humanity that the only adequate response may be the penalty of death.”
Sen. Peterson shot back in response to Chief Horvath’s claim that individuals who were exonerated from death row are successes. Citing Jermaine Wright, who was freed from a Smyrna prison in January after 20 years, she said he should not be held up as a paragon of the system’s excellence.
She also claimed that black Delawareans are seven times more likely to get the penalty for killing a white man or woman than another black individual.
Kirk Bloodsworth, who was sentenced to death in Maryland and became the first American to be exonerated from death row based on DNA evidence, said the death penalty does not protect citizens.
He said 151 individuals have been freed after being judged to be wrongly sentenced to death.
“If it could happen to me, it could happen to anybody in America,” he said.
With the bill released from committee, it could be voted on soon — possibly as soon as today. A similar version passed the Senate 11-10 in 2013.
While capital punishment may ultimately be repealed or seconded by the 62 members of the General Assembly, Chief Horvath has a different idea.
“Why can’t this go to a vote, to a referendum?” he said. “Why can’t we hear what the public wants instead of what my interest group wants and what the other interest groups in this room want?”
Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at firstname.lastname@example.org