Death penalty has long been source of controversy in Delaware

DOVER — By trying to end the death penalty, Delaware lawmakers are fighting a practice that dates back well over 3,000 years.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the first recorded use of capital punishment was approximately 3,800 years ago with the Code of Hammurabi.

The famous Babylonian legal code, with its “eye for an eye” provision, was created around 1750 B.C. and includes death sentences for crimes such as theft, rape and harboring a fugitive slave.

The Delaware Department of Correction says a hanging in 1662 marked the first execution in Delaware, 54 years after the first known instance of capital punishment in the New World took place at Jamestown, Virginia.

CURRENTLY ON DEATH ROW This is a listing of the 15 men on Delaware’s death row. All of them have been found guilty of first-degree murder. Cabrera, Reyes and Starling were convicted of two counts each. Reyes and Cabrera’s crimes were related, as were Swan and Norcross’ and Stevenson and Manley’s. Luis G. Cabrera Date of birth: Nov. 7,1969 Sentenced to death: March 14, 2002 Date of offense: Jan. 21, 1996 James E. Cooke Jr. Date of birth: Dec. 2,1970 Sentenced to death: Sept. 17, 2012 Date of offense: May 1, 2005 Michael R. Manley Date of birth: July 29,1974 Sentenced to death: Feb. 3, 2006 Date of offense: Nov. 13,1995 Adam W. Norcross Date of birth: July 25,1970 Sentenced to death: Oct. 3, 2001 Date of offense: Nov. 4, 1996 Juan J. Ortiz Date of birth: Feb. 26, 1972 Sentenced to death: Sept. 26, 2003 Date of offense: July 6, 2001 Gary W. Ploof Date of birth: March 19, 1964 Sentenced to death: Aug. 22, 2003 Date of offense: Nov. 3, 2001 Derrick J. Powell Date of birth: Feb. 6, 1987 Sentenced to death: May 20, 2011 Date of offense: Sept. 1, 2009 Luis E. Reyes Date of birth: Feb. 8,1977 Sentenced to death: March 14, 2002 Date of offense: Jan. 21, 1996 Chauncy S. Starling Date of birth: Dec. 30,1974 Sentenced to death: June 10, 2004 Date of offense: March 9, 2001 David D. Stevenson Date of birth: June 6,1974 Sentenced to death: Feb. 3, 2006 Date of offense: Nov. 13, 1995 Ralph E. Swan Date of birth: March 25,1971 Sentenced to death: Oct. 3, 2001 Date of offense: Nov. 4, 1996 Ambrose L. Sykes Date of birth: Sept. 28,1972 Sentenced to death: Sept. 20, 2006 Date of offense: Nov. 7, 2004 Emmett Taylor III Date of birth: Aug. 19, 1962 Sentenced to death: March 12, 2010 Date of offense: Aug. 13, 2007 Milton E. Taylor Date of birth: Nov. 15, 1968 Sentenced to death: July 6, 2001 Date of offense: March 23, 2000 Craig A. Zebroski Date of birth: Sept. 6, 1977 Sentenced to death: Aug. 18, 1997 Date of offense: April 26, 1996

CURRENTLY ON
DEATH ROW
This is a listing of the 15 men on Delaware’s death row. All of them have been found guilty of first-degree murder. Cabrera, Reyes and Starling were convicted of two counts each. Reyes and Cabrera’s crimes were related, as were Swan and Norcross’ and Stevenson and Manley’s.
Luis G. Cabrera
Date of birth: Nov. 7,1969
Sentenced to death: March 14, 2002
Date of offense: Jan. 21, 1996
James E. Cooke Jr.
Date of birth: Dec. 2,1970
Sentenced to death: Sept. 17, 2012
Date of offense: May 1, 2005
Michael R. Manley
Date of birth: July 29,1974
Sentenced to death: Feb. 3, 2006
Date of offense: Nov. 13,1995
Adam W. Norcross
Date of birth: July 25,1970
Sentenced to death: Oct. 3, 2001
Date of offense: Nov. 4, 1996
Juan J. Ortiz
Date of birth: Feb. 26, 1972
Sentenced to death: Sept. 26, 2003
Date of offense: July 6, 2001
Gary W. Ploof
Date of birth: March 19, 1964
Sentenced to death: Aug. 22, 2003
Date of offense: Nov. 3, 2001
Derrick J. Powell
Date of birth: Feb. 6, 1987
Sentenced to death: May 20, 2011
Date of offense: Sept. 1, 2009
Luis E. Reyes
Date of birth: Feb. 8,1977
Sentenced to death: March 14, 2002
Date of offense: Jan. 21, 1996
Chauncy S. Starling
Date of birth: Dec. 30,1974
Sentenced to death: June 10, 2004
Date of offense: March 9, 2001
David D. Stevenson
Date of birth: June 6,1974
Sentenced to death: Feb. 3, 2006
Date of offense: Nov. 13, 1995
Ralph E. Swan
Date of birth: March 25,1971
Sentenced to death: Oct. 3, 2001
Date of offense: Nov. 4, 1996
Ambrose L. Sykes
Date of birth: Sept. 28,1972
Sentenced to death: Sept. 20, 2006
Date of offense: Nov. 7, 2004
Emmett Taylor III
Date of birth: Aug. 19, 1962
Sentenced to death: March 12, 2010
Date of offense: Aug. 13, 2007
Milton E. Taylor
Date of birth: Nov. 15, 1968
Sentenced to death: July 6, 2001
Date of offense: March 23, 2000
Craig A. Zebroski
Date of birth: Sept. 6, 1977
Sentenced to death: Aug. 18, 1997
Date of offense: April 26, 1996

At least 33 people had been executed in Delaware by 1958, when officials made it the second state to outlaw capital punishment. The Department of Correction says that ban lasted just three years before the legislature re-instated the penalty.

Section 4209 of the Delaware Code provides a provision for execution: anyone at least 18 years of age found guilty of first-degree murder. After being convicted of murder, the guilty party will have a separate hearing in Superior Court where a jury will provide recommendations to a judge.

Today, the death penalty has become the subject of a great deal of debate. Activists cite the high cost and the fact it can result in the execution of an innocent person, while proponents argue it is a deterrent against crime and can protect law enforcement.

Fierce battles in state legislatures rage as lawmakers discuss an issue that is not strictly partisan. Thirty-two states, including ones as heterogeneous as Oregon and Florida, utilize capital punishment.

First State status

In Delaware, Sen. Karen Peterson, D-Stanton, has been perhaps the foremost champion of repeal. While she’s been backed by some members of her Democratic party, others have voiced their opposition to ending the practice. Some legislators have crossed the aisle to vote for abolishing capital punishment.

The issue has led to conflicts between members of the same caucus, as lawmakers trade barbs despite their shared political affiliation.

Since 1976, the state has executed 16 people, with the last execution coming in 2012. Between 1946 and 1992, Delaware did not put anyone to death, while a moratorium resulting from a lawsuit held up proceedings from 2006 to 2011.

Fifteen individuals, all men, are currently on death row, located at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna. Seven of them are facing death by lethal injection for crimes committed below the canal:

Adam Norcross and Ralph Swan murdered a man in a Kenton home invasion in 1996.

Juan Ortiz murdered his ex-girlfriend in 2001 in Harrington.

Gary Ploof killed his wife in Dover in 2003.

Ambrose Sykes murdered a woman in Dover in 2004.

Emmett Taylor killed his fiancée in Millsboro in 2007.

Derrick Powell murdered a police officer in Georgetown in 2009.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware, which has fought for repeal, says on its website the state has “one of the broadest death penalty statutes in the country” and is one of three states where the jury makes a non-unanimous recommendation to a judge. According to the ACLU, Delaware is third in executions per capita.

A 1994 state law requires all executions to take place between 12:01 and 3 a.m. According to the Department of Correction, “The executioner is a volunteer who remains anonymous.”

Lethal injection has been the state’s method of execution since 1986, although those on death row prior to the passage of the injection law were given the option of being hanged. Delaware holds the distinction of carrying out the last hanging in the United States, when Billy Bailey was executed in 1996.

Another wrinkle affecting executions is that drugs used to humanely execute prisoners are becoming scarcer. Some are no longer manufactured in the country, making it difficult for states to obtain the necessary compounds.

The Associated Press reported that Alan Levin, the director of the Delaware Economic Development Office, was able to use his contacts from his time as the president of Happy Harry’s drugstore in helping the Department of

Correction get the supply of drugs it needed in 2012.

Because of the numerous appeals almost always involved when a defendant is sentenced to death, capital cases typically drag on for years. Nine of the men on Delaware’s death row were first sentenced to death at least a decade ago.

With capital cases come high costs, a fact frequently cited by supporters of repeal.

Public Defender Brendan O’Neill testified last month in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing nearly all murder cases involve state, rather than private, counsel. By law, capital cases require multiple defense lawyers assigned to the case.

The Public Defender’s Office and the Office of Conflicts Counsel, which both represent indigent persons, spent a combined $2.6 million in fiscal year 2014 defending death penalty cases.

While not all of that expense would be eliminated, the state would save some money if the repeal bill passes.

However, supporters of the death penalty say the issue should not be judged on the basis of money. Justice, they say, forces finances to take a backseat.

Major claims

Other key arguments center on the issue of deterrence, mistakes and morality. Those in favor of ending the punishment say it’s cruel and can lead to an innocent man or woman being put to death.

In 1985, Kirk Bloodsworth was sentenced to death in Maryland for the rape and murder of a child. In 1993, he became the first American to be exonerated from death row by DNA testing. Mr. Bloodsworth has since become an activist and spoke at a Senate hearing last month in Delaware, urging lawmakers to repeal capital punishment.

“If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone,” he said in an interview.

He believes strongly capital punishment is a worse fate than life in prison. An individual who has been incarcerated can be freed, whereas there is no recourse for someone wrongly executed, Mr. Bloodsworth argued.

“If you still want the death penalty, you have to be OK with an innocent person being executed,” he said.

In 2012, Gov. Jack Markell commuted convicted murderer Robert Gattis’ death sentence to life in prison just days before he was set to be executed. In February, Jermaine Wright was freed from death row after 24 years in jail when a judge threw out his confession. The Death Penalty Information Center reports 152 people nationally have been exonerated from death row.

Supporters of the penalty disagree there is a risk of the wrong person being killed. Delaware’s checks and balances are strong, with the penalty rarely being handed out and only after exhaustive and thorough reviews and appeals, they say.

Rep. Larry Mitchell, D-Wilmington, praised Delaware’s judicial system, saying, “I don’t see any reason to change it.”

Drawing an analogy to a rabid animal, Sen. David Lawson, R-Marydel, said sometimes executing a violent man or woman is the only way to ensure the public’s safety.

“I’ve seen enough vile things in my life. I don’t need to see anymore,” he said as the Senate debated repeal on April 2. “I don’t need to see our families hurt. I don’t need to see what we are sworn to protect in danger, but that’s what going to happen with this bill if we pass it.”

Both Rep. Mitchell and Sen. Lawson are former police officers, and they believe capital punishment stays some dangerous hands.

Without the risk of a death sentence, individuals serving life without parole could attack correctional officers or fellow inmates on the grounds that they have nothing to lose, Rep. Mitchell noted.

But more importantly, he believes, capital punishment is just that — a punishment.

“They weren’t imposed as deterrents, they were imposed as penalties for committing the most heinous crimes,” he said.

Repeal backers seeking to refute arguments of deterrence have cited claims from the Death Penalty Information Center that non-death penalty states have lower murder rates than death penalty states.

Nationally, some friends and families of victims have expressed a desire to see justice done by having the murderers put to death, but others have offered differing opinions.

Kristin Froehlich, president of Delaware Citizens Opposed to the Death Penalty, is also the family member of a murder victim. Her brother was killed 20 years ago.

“I was lucky the killer received life without parole,” she explained before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month. “The killer was safely behind bars, and I got the legal finality I needed to move forward with my grieving and my healing. The value of my brother’s life is not diminished by the fact that his killer did not get the death penalty.”

What’s next

As arguments have raged and consumed column inches, men and women both for and against repeal have cited the Bible. Letters to the editor have argued the Bible does not prohibit putting to death a violent criminal, while others have claimed the state’s policies should not be influenced by religion.

On the other side, some religious leaders have spoken out in favor of ending the practice of capital punishment, and Sen. Gary Simpson, R-Milford, cited his faith as the primary reason for his vote.

“I can’t remember any part of the Old Testament where it said ‘Oh, it’s OK if the state does it,’” he said at a news conference when the repeal bill was introduced last month.

Gov. Markell has not taken a public stance on the issue. Sen. Peterson said the governor has avoided strongly leaning one way or the other in conversation.

“(Former Gov. Martin) O’Malley, from Maryland, who was very much behind the repeal effort in that state, you know, we tried to encourage our governor to do the same, and that is to be out front on it and take the lead, but he’s not comfortable with that for whatever reason,” the senator said, while acknowledging she might be unwilling to make bold statements were she the chief executive.

Whether or not Senate Bill 40 makes it out of the House Judiciary Committee and then passes the House could well hinge on how the public reacts in the ensuing weeks and months.

 

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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