Death penalty repeal advocates facing an uphill fight in Delaware House

DOVER — In the weeks to come, the House Judiciary Committee is set to consider one of the most polarizing issues in the state: capital punishment.

Senate Bill 40 abolishing the death penalty passed the Senate by an 11-9 vote earlier this month. It now heads to the General Assembly’s lower chamber.

Last session, a similar bill stalled in the Judiciary Committee with members tabling it and an effort to petition it out by the lead House sponsor falling short.

It’s the worst-kept secret around Legislative Hall: As the much-debated bill waits for a hearing, supporters have their fingers crossed but are doubtful it will find more success in the 11-member committee this time around.

Sean M. Lynn

Sean M. Lynn

Rep. Sean Lynn, D-Dover, is the main sponsor of the bill on the House side. Though he expressed hope the “strength of the argument will prevail,” lawmakers say that is unlikely.

“In my heart I don’t believe that it will be released from the committee,” Rep. Lynn said.

Five of the members of the group, including Rep. Lynn, have signed onto the bill, but the lead Senate sponsor believes the committee is “stacked.”

“It’ll go to committee and it won’t come out of committee,” said Sen. Karen Peterson, D-Stanton.

Informed of his counterpart’s claim, Rep. Lynn declined to assess the group as organized against repeal, noting he is only in his first term as a legislator.

Rep. Larry Mitchell, D-Wilmington, is the chairman of the committee. As a former police officer, he’s adamantly opposed to abolishing capital punishment but pledged to give the bill a fair hearing.

“If you choose to commit the crime, then you have to be prepared to suffer the consequences,” he said. He expressed concerns that repeal could eliminate some protections for law and correctional officers.

A hearing date has not been scheduled.

Rep. Lynn’s predecessor was also a firm supporter of repealing the death penalty. Democrat Darryl Scott, who opted not to run for a fourth term, said he is “curious as to whether it’s going to suffer the same fate” as in the prior legislative session.

HOUSE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE These 11 will have the responsibility of hearing arguments for and against Senate Bill 40, which seeks to eliminate capital punishment. Chairman Rep. Larry Mitchell, D-Wilmington Vice-Chairman Rep. Melanie George Smith, D-Bear (bill co-sponsor) Rep. Gerald Brady, D-Wilmington (bill co-sponsor) Rep. James Johnson, D-New Castle (bill co-sponsor) Rep. Sean Lynn, D-Dover (bill sponsor) Rep. Bobby Outten, R-Harrington Rep. Trey Paradee, D-Cheswold Rep. Charles Potter, D-Wilmington (bill co-sponsor) Rep. Stephen Smyk, R-Milton Rep. Jeffrey Spiegelman, R-Clayton Rep. David Wilson, R-Bridgeville How the senators voted on April 2 Yes — Blevins, D; Bushweller, D; Cloutier, R; Henry, D; Lopez, R; McBride, D; McDowell, D; Peterson, D; Simpson, R; Sokola, D; Townsend, D No — Bonini, R; Ennis, D; Hall-Long, D; Hocker, R; Lawson, R; Marshall, D; Pettyjohn, R; Poore, D; Richardson, R Absent — Lavelle, R

HOUSE JUDICIARY
COMMITTEE
These 11 will have the responsibility of hearing arguments for and against Senate Bill 40, which seeks to eliminate capital punishment.
Chairman Rep. Larry Mitchell, D-Wilmington
Vice-Chairman Rep. Melanie George Smith, D-Bear (bill co-sponsor)
Rep. Gerald Brady, D-Wilmington (bill co-sponsor)
Rep. James Johnson, D-New Castle (bill co-sponsor)
Rep. Sean Lynn, D-Dover (bill sponsor)
Rep. Bobby Outten, R-Harrington
Rep. Trey Paradee, D-Cheswold
Rep. Charles Potter, D-Wilmington (bill co-sponsor)
Rep. Stephen Smyk, R-Milton
Rep. Jeffrey Spiegelman, R-Clayton
Rep. David Wilson, R-Bridgeville
How the senators voted on April 2
Yes — Blevins, D; Bushweller, D; Cloutier, R; Henry, D; Lopez, R; McBride, D; McDowell, D; Peterson, D; Simpson, R; Sokola, D; Townsend, D
No — Bonini, R; Ennis, D; Hall-Long, D; Hocker, R; Lawson, R; Marshall, D; Pettyjohn, R; Poore, D; Richardson, R
Absent — Lavelle, R

He believes the committee will be able to muster five votes, but the other six members will vote no, preventing the bill from being released.

Last year, the bill was eventually tabled.

There are other options, but those are rare and seemingly unlikely ones. Rep. Lynn could suspend the rules or petition the bill out. The former is used occasionally for straightforward bills or at the end of a session when committees meetings are over, Mr. Scott said.

A lawmaker can make a motion to suspend the rules on a bill. If another legislator provides affirmation, the bill is brought to the floor. That process is also used when a substitute bill is needed after amendments have been made, as suspending the rules prevents having to go through the committee process all over again.

To petition a bill out, sponsors must get signatures from the majority of members in the overall chamber. In the House, that would necessitate 21 people providing their approval — not only in repeal but in breaking with the traditional steps.

The death penalty has become a divisive issue, even leading to some internal dissent among otherwise like-minded politicians.

Sen. Peterson has been critical of Speaker of the House Peter Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach. Schwartzkopf, a former police officer, believes executions of convicted murderers are necessary at least as a threat to prevent crime.

Despite his strong feelings on the issue, he’s promised to stay out of it and leave the committee vote up to the 11 members.

Earlier this month, Sen. Peterson accused him of ruling through fear and stifling dissent. She said he had urged members of the House last year to not sign a petition that was being circulated. The petition had 14 signatures before momentum stalled, she said.

Rep. Schwartzkopf acknowledged he did discourage representatives from petitioning the bill out, but not because he personally opposes this specific proposal.

“I’ve been accused of a lot of different things,” he said. “None of them are true.”

He said he assigned the bill to the Judiciary Committee, in part, because it at least has a chance of passing there, as compared to the Corrections and Public Safety panels.

Describing the committee process — where speakers testify in front of members, who then vote — as sacred, Rep. Schwartzkopf said he is strongly opposed to breaking procedure.

The petition came about as a result of a simple misunderstanding between him and former Rep. Scott, he explained.

Mr. Scott said he did not know of any direct pressures placed on legislators to discourage them from signing the petition.

“People wanted to respect the committee process and didn’t want to circumvent the process and there were those that, again, whether it’s implied or explicitly stated, if the speaker and the leadership are opposed to it, some members are going to go that route because they don’t want to face any consequences,” he said.

Although he thinks the topic should be settled by all the members of the chamber, Rep. Lynn said he would not petition the bill out unless “that is the will of the House.”

Rep. Schwartzkopf has said he thinks the legislation might receive more support if an amendment adding provisions for execution of a criminal who murders a law enforcement officer, but backers have said that will not happen.

When the bill received a vote on the Senate flooring, Sen. Peterson flatly rejected four amendments offering aggravating circumstances that would allow for capital punishment.

Mr. Scott said he thinks the concerns of police and correction workers will keep the proposal from finding success.

“Unless a deal’s cut or an amendment that addresses concerns of law enforcement, I’d be surprised to see the bill get out of committee,” he said.
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Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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