Delaware death penalty repeal bill fails

DOVER — The House Judiciary Committee opted not to release the death penalty repeal bill Wednesday by a one-vote margin.

In the end, two-and-a-half hours of discussion and public testimony failed to change any minds among committee members, with the representatives voting 6-5 not to release the bill to the House floor.

As the committee chairman announced the results, disappointed repeal supporters among the spectators filed out.

Cries of “Shame!” echoed through the House chamber as two women standing in the balcony area made their disapproval clear.

The main House sponsor said afterward he was disheartened but not surprised by the result. Although the bill failed to make it out of committee, it’s not dead. Rep. Sean Lynn, D-Dover, said he might take the unusual route of suspending the legislative rules as soon as today in an effort to get a vote on the House floor.

HOW THEY VOTED After hours of discussion and testimony, the members of the House Judiciary Committee voted 6-5 not to release Senate Bill 40 to the floor. All five supporters are sponsors of the bill. FOR Reps. Sean Lynn, D-Dover; Melanie George Smith, D-Bear; Charles Potter, D-Wilmington; Gerald Brady, D-Wilmington; James Johnson, D-New Castle AGAINST Reps. Larry Mitchell, D-Wilmington; Trey Paradee, D-Cheswold; Jeff Spiegelman, R-Clayton; David Wilson, R-Bridgeville; Bobby Outten, R-Harrington; Stephen Smyk, R-Milton

HOW THEY VOTED
After hours of discussion and testimony, the members of the House Judiciary Committee voted 6-5 not to release Senate Bill 40 to the floor. All five supporters are sponsors of the bill.
FOR
Reps. Sean Lynn, D-Dover; Melanie George Smith, D-Bear; Charles Potter, D-Wilmington; Gerald Brady, D-Wilmington; James Johnson, D-New Castle
AGAINST
Reps. Larry Mitchell, D-Wilmington; Trey Paradee, D-Cheswold; Jeff Spiegelman, R-Clayton; David Wilson, R-Bridgeville; Bobby Outten, R-Harrington; Stephen Smyk, R-Milton

On Wednesday, the chamber was packed for the 11 a.m. hearing, with spectators intent on the discussion happening before them. More than 50 members of the public — police officers, religious leaders, family members of murder victims — sat off to the side and in the balcony, waiting for their turns to speak. In all, 50 witnesses testified, with 42 of them speaking out against the death penalty and calling for its repeal.

Dozens of anti-death penalty activists attended the hearing Wednesday in anticipation the bill would be released from the same committee where it had stalled in the prior legislative session.

Many of them had gathered outside Legislative Hall about 90 minutes before the hearing. Anti-death penalty advocates wore buttons and carried signs calling for the end of capital punishment, and The Roots’ Tariq Trotter, known as Black

Thought, gave a brief performance on the steps of the state capitol.

“The death penalty is systematically biased against poor people and people of color,” Mr. Trotter insisted as many of the approximately 50 people in the audience cheered and clapped.

But the best efforts of the death penalty opponents were not enough for the repeal legislation.
Senate Bill 40 had passed the Senate 11-9 in April, but supporters said the other chamber be the toughest test.

Proponents of repeal claim capital punishment is imperfect and is disproportionately used on minorities and other disadvantaged groups. Opponents counter that some crimes deserve the ultimate punishment and the death penalty helps keep police and correctional officers safe.

Arguments centered on those issues Wednesday with the two sides in stark disagreement on the merits of the death penalty.

Rep. Lynn called the issue the “biggest civil rights violation of our time.”

“We have the distinct dishonor of being the last Western industrialized nation to engage in the death penalty,” he said.

Several speakers referred to their own experiences as family members or friends of murder victims. While some said violent convicted murderers should be executed to ensure they cannot harm anyone else, others argued that capital punishment does not bring closure.

“If I had allowed my brother’s killer to make me vengeful and to make decisions based on fear and hate rather than reason, then he would have taken my life as surely as he took my brother’s,” said Kristin Froehlich, president of Delaware Citizens Opposed to the Death Penalty. “That is not who I am. I am not a killer, and I don’t want the state of Delaware to make me one. When the state of Delaware executes, it is killing in my name.”

In contrast, one family member of a Delaware victim called for continued support of the death penalty.
Mark Bonistall described the violent death of his daughter Lindsey, a University of Delaware sophomore who was raped and murdered in 2005. Fighting back tears and holding up a picture of his then 20-year-old daughter, Mr. Bonistall urged members of the committee to reject the bill.

“Let the punishment fit the crime,” he said as his voice shook.

Several speakers urged the committee members to release the bill to the floor even if they plan to vote against it there.

“What reason would a House committee member have to oppose the release of SB 40, other than their own opposition to repealing the death penalty?” said Anne Pikolas, speaking on behalf of the liberal Progressive Democrats of Sussex County. “If you vote ‘no’ you are denying 75 percent of Delaware voters an opportunity for their representatives to speak out. That is not democracy.”

At least a dozen religious leaders representing the Jewish faith and many Christian denominations called for repeal, with several citing scripture.

Other speakers differed, however.

While the Bible calls for mercy, there are “countless examples, both in the Old and the New Testament, of civil government executing the violent criminals,” noted Greg Whaley.

The 147th General Assembly’s repeal bill spent much of 2013 and all of 2014 mired in the Judiciary Committee, failing to get out despite two hearings. Rep. Lynn hopes to avoid the same fate this time around and might break precedent despite strong opposition from the Democratic House leadership.

He said afterward he might suspend the rules to get the bill to the floor as soon as today. To do so, he would make a motion on the House floor. If it receives a second, representatives would vote on bringing the bill to the floor, with a simple majority of 21 needed to lift it from committee.

Rep. Lynn said he believes he has the votes, but Speaker of the House Peter Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, said Tuesday he thinks efforts to suspend the rules will fail.

“This issue — people are either there or they’re here,” he said. “I mean, they know where they are on this bill. It is a very private, it’s a very emotional and it’s a very personal decision that each of us have to make on these things.

“I think the worst thing we can do is keep hounding people to change their opinion on things.”

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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