Delaware House passes death penalty bill


Steve Smyk, R-Milton, introduces his bill on the death penalty on Tuesday at Legislative Hall. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — The House of Representatives voted 24-16 Tuesday to reinstate the death penalty, sending the bill to the Senate.

House Bill 125 would restore capital punishment after the Delaware Supreme Court struck down the state’s death penalty statute in August. Because the provision allowed a judge to make the final decision as to whether the convicted individual would be sentenced to death or not, the court concluded it violated the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees a trial by jury.

The new bill uses many of the same procedures as the old statute but requires unanimous jury agreement for a sentence of death.

Supporters of the death penalty say it helps prevent crime and point to the recent killings of correctional officer Lt. Steven Floyd and police officer Col. Stephen Ballard as examples of heinous crimes that need to be prevented and punished.

Opponents counter capital punishment is disproportionately applied to minorities, the poor and the mentally ill and does not serve as a deterrent to crime.

“I spent half of my life as a police officer, investigating, pursuing and arresting some of the most heinous criminals in our state,” Rep. Larry Mitchell, D-Elsmere, said in a March statement after the bill was introduced. “Capital punishment is the most serious sentence we as a state can carry out. This legislation sets a higher standard, which reserves the punishment for only the most extreme cases.”

Sean Lynn, D-Dover argues against the death penalty on Tuesday at Legislative Hall. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Lawmakers discussed the issue for about 40 minutes Tuesday, although it consisted almost entirely of death penalty skeptics explaining their opposition.

Much of the speaking was done by Rep. Sean Lynn, D-Dover, who has been one of the leaders in the push against the death penalty.

Noting the state’s death penalty has been overturned by courts multiple times, he said Delaware has “never executed anyone under a constitutionally valid statute.”

Rep. Lynn made several claims backed up by studies, such as that blacks are more likely to be sentenced to death, especially if the victim is white.

“These are facts. This is reason,” he said. “You cannot argue with it. It cannot be disproven.”

But supporters of capital punishment, including many police officers, strongly disagree.

Rep. Smyk said much of the information surrounding the death penalty debate is “false,” although he declined to say what those falsehoods are.

Tuesday’s discussion had less focus on it than a failed 2016 vote to abolish capital punishment, with fewer people in the House chamber.

While the bill did pass, it was expected to do so, with a majority of representatives opposing repeal last year. The Senate, where the repeal bill passed 11-10 in 2015, will be a stiffer test.

Rep. Melanie George Smith, D-Bear, was the only member of the House to flip her vote from 2016, voting for reinstatement of capital punishment Tuesday.

Gov. John Carney has said he supports the Supreme Court’s ruling but “wouldn’t rule out, however, supporting a death penalty that applied only to those convicted of killing a member of law enforcement.”

The bill would not apply to the 13 men on death row at the time of the Supreme Court’s ruling — their sentences have since been converted to life in prison.

The death penalty has a long history in Delaware: Lawmakers abolished it in 1958 and then restored it three years later, overturning the governor’s veto to instate the penalty.

Members of the legislature tried and failed to repeal capital punishment in the prior two General Assemblies, with legislation stalling in a House committee the first time and on the House floor last year.

Delaware was the last state to perform a hanging, executing Billy Bailey in that way in 1996.

All executions performed by the state since, most recently in 2012, were done with lethal injections. However, according to Department of Correction spokeswoman Katherine Weber, the state does not have any drugs used for carrying out sentences.

“At this time, there is little chance of obtaining the drugs through commercial sources as the manufacturers have restricted the sale for the purpose of executions,” Ms. Weber said in an email.

The state also allows hangings but only if lethal injections are found to be unconstitutional.

Rep. Smyk was reluctant to address the issue when asked after the vote, calling it “a discussion for another day.”

A future bill could add a new method of execution if House Bill 125 becomes law and the state is unable to obtain the needed drugs.

Death penalty vote

The House of Representatives voted to reinstate the death penalty Tuesday, sending the bill to the Senate. Below is a tally of how lawmakers voted.

Yes: Briggs King, R; Carson, D; Collins, R; D. Short, R; Dukes, R; Gray, R; Hensley, R; Hudson, R; Jaques, D; Q. Johnson, D; Kenton, R; Longhurst, D; George Smith, D; Mitchell, D; Mulrooney, D; Osienski, D; Outten, R; Paradee, D; Postles, R; Schwartzkopf, D; Smyk, R; Spiegelman, R; Wilson, R; Yearick, R

No: Baumbach, D; Bennett, D; Bentz, D; Bolden, D; Brady, D; Heffernan, D; J. Johnson, D; Keeley, D; Kowalko, D; Lynn, D; Matthews, D; Miro, R; Potter, D; B. Short, D; Viola, D; Williams, D

Absent: Ramone, R

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