Death penalty repeal fails 23-16; Lynn not giving up

DOVER — The Delaware House of Representatives voted not to repeal the death penalty Thursday. By a 23-16 vote, the chamber defeated a bill that would have abolished capital punishment in Delaware.

Two Republicans and 14 Democrats voted yes, with two lawmakers absent. Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat, supports the bill.

Despite the defeat, the main sponsor, Rep. Sean Lynn, D-Dover, believes the bill still could pass. Rep. Kim Williams, D-Newport, voted against the bill for procedural reasons, allowing her to recall the vote within three legislative days. The General Assembly next meets March 8.

Rep. Andria Bennett, D-Dover, is also in support, but she was absent Thursday.

In the meantime, Rep. Lynn said he thinks he can sway three lawmakers, which would give the repeal coalition the necessary 21.

“This is going to be an evolving dialogue. … In modern times, we’ve gotten this further than any other General Assembly,” he said.

Opponents of repeal hailed the vote.

“We’re pleased. We opposed the repeal for the victims, not for law enforcement, and the victims’ families,” Camden police Chief William Bryson, chairman of the Delaware Police Chiefs’ Council, said. “We think the limited cases that the death penalty applies, it’s warranted.”

Fourteen men are on Delaware’s death row. The state’s last execution came in 2012.

The vote came as the Delaware Supreme Court considers a request from a Superior Court judge to review the constitutionality of portions of the state’s capital punishment statute, which allows a judge to overrule a jury and sentence death.

Thursday, after about an hour of discussion, which featured mostly pro-repeal lawmakers speaking, the House took a roll call. The 23-16 tally leaves the state in the exact position it had been before the vote.

Rep. Lyndon Yearick, R-Camden, took an anti-death penalty stance while campaigning for his first term in 2014 but voted “no” Thursday. He said he changed his opinion after receiving new information and hearing from constituents.

During the dialogue, Rep. J.J. Johnson, D-New Castle, called for legislators to be on the “right side of history.”

Supporters consistently have argued capital punishment is applied disproportionately to minorities, poor people and individuals with disabilities. They also say it does not serve as an effective deterrent and can lead to an innocent person being executed.

Those on the other side have disagreed, saying it is used only for the most dangerous killers and can prevent violence.

“How do you measure that it’s not a deterrent?” Chief Bryson said. “How do you know whose mind it’s changed not to commit a murder? How do you measure that?”

The bill only reached the floor after Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Larry Mitchell, D-Elsmere, agreed to sign on unfavorably last week, giving it the necessary six votes to be released from committee. It had been languishing there since failing in a May hearing.

Both supporters and opponents of abolishing capital punishment mobilized in the wake of the announcement, and the chamber was packed Thursday. Several people wore buttons calling for repeal, and one woman berated lawmakers who voted against the bill afterward.

Many arguments that had been made before were repeated, including statistics and appeals to public safety.

Rep. Charles Potter, D-Wilmington, urged the chamber to think of religious teachings and said legislators should act, after three years of public discussion and debate, to end capital punishment.

“Now is the time,” he said. “We’ve been dealing with this for a long, long time. We might as well get this over with today, move forward,”

Lawmakers on opposing sides each called one witness, with social activist Bryan Stevenson discussing the merits of repeal and Mary Cairns describing her experience as a friend of the family of Lindsey Bonistall, a University of Delaware student murdered in 2005.

“Words cannot describe the overwhelming amount of pain, heartache and grief that Lindsey’s family and friends have endured since her horrific death,” Ms. Cairns said.
Rep. Williams can request a recall when the General Assembly reconvenes in March, and Rep. Lynn, for one, still has confidence.

“This is going to happen. Twenty states have already repealed the death penalty,” he said. “While we’re deliberating, Kansas and Missouri are deliberating. It’s unfortunate that we won’t be the first state to repeal in 2016, but it’s going to happen, either by the courts or by the legislature.”

How they voted

The House voted 23-16 to end the death penalty. Below is a listing of how all 41 members cast their vote.

No — Briggs King, R; Carson, D; Collins, R; Dukes, R; Gray, R; Hensley, R; Hudson, R; Jaques, D; Q. Johnson, D; Kenton, R; Longhurst, D; Mitchell, D; Mulrooney, D; Osienski, D; Outten, R; Paradee, D; Schwartzkopf, D; D. Short, R; Smyk, R; Spiegelman, R; Williams, D; Wilson, R; Yearick, R

Yes — Baumbach, D; Bentz, D; Bolden, D; Brady, D; Heffernan, D; J. Johnson, D; Keeley, D; Kowalko, D; Lynn, D; Matthews, D; Miro, R; Potter, D; Ramone, R; B. Short, D; Smith, D; Viola, D

Absent — Bennett, D; Peterman, R

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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