House panel hearing set today on death penalty repeal bill

DOVER — One of the most controversial bills in the General Assembly in recent years is set to face its biggest obstacle today — a hearing before an unfriendly committee.

Senate Bill 40, which would repeal the death penalty, will be debated and likely voted on by the 11 members of the House Judiciary Committee.

A large number of witnesses, including religious, nonprofit and law enforcement officials, are expected to testify both in favor of and against the bill.

According to several lawmakers, the bill is not expected to be released from committee.

With five of the 11 committee members sponsoring the legislation, the bill has some guaranteed votes, but that still leaves six legislators who could vote against it.

On Monday, the main House sponsor said he thinks the proposal will stall in committee — and he is prepared to take a major step in an effort to get it passed.

If the bill is not released to the House floor, Rep. Sean Lynn, D-Dover, plans to suspend the rules, a controversial process that one lawmaker said has not been done in decades.

To do so, Rep. Lynn would formally make an announcement on the House floor. If the motion gains support from a majority of the chamber’s 41 lawmakers, the bill would be released directly to the House of Representatives at that time.

While the committee may not support the bill, Rep. Lynn thinks the full House does.

Recent proclamations from religious leaders and Gov. Jack Markell in favor of repeal have helped turn the tide, he thinks. The governor, a Democrat, publicly revealed his feelings last week, saying at the time a great deal of thought went into his decision.

Noting the issue is “beyond politics” for him, Rep. Lynn claimed he has a “moral, legal and ethical obligation” to promote the bill. He believes the public supports repeal.

However, he will be facing pressure to relent.

Speaker of the House Peter Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, is vehemently opposed to breaking the normal committee procedure. When the proposal was introduced in March, Rep. Schwartzkopf stressed he did not want to see a legislator suspend the rules or petition a bill out of committee, something he reiterated Tuesday.

“I want to make one thing clear: Once you try to suspend the rules, it’s no longer about the death penalty. It’s about the committee process and the rules of the House of Representatives,” he said.

Several lawmakers, he noted, have expressed support for repeal but also said they would be hesitant to vote for a bill that got to the floor through an abnormal procedure. Suspending the rules is allowed, but doing so would be setting a precedent that would reflect poorly on Rep. Lynn and the bill itself, the speaker said.

In some cases, the rules are suspended at the end of a session when a bill is introduced without enough time for it to get a hearing.

Although Rep. Lynn said the rules have been suspended in the past, including in one case by Rep. Schwartzkopf himself, those were incidents where the bills in question did not get a hearing.

Rep. Schwartzkopf said he warned Rep. Lynn his motion would likely fail to gain a majority of the votes on the floor, but the first-term Democrat told him he was receiving pressure from repeal advocates.

Although the speaker is personally opposed to removing capital punishment, Rep. Schwartzkopf emphasized he is not trying to influence the debate and will not discipline Rep. Lynn if the normal procedure isn’t followed — something Rep. Lynn said he was not concerned with.

“I was on the other side of a 6-5 vote twice,” the speaker said. “One was on a very important bill to me and my county, and I had a hearing. I had the opportunity to change peoples’ opinions and minds on the issue. I wasn’t good enough to get six votes and it went down 6-5.

“I turned around and walked away. Haven’t done anything with it since.”

Rep. Lynn said he may suspend the rules Thursday and believes he has the support to get the bill heard on the floor. His predecessor, Darryl Scott, attempted to petition the bill out of committee at the end of the last session in June, but efforts to garner the needed signatures fell short.

“Clearly the bill is technically sound, and clearly it warrants discussion,” Rep. Lynn said.

Drug shortage?

Around the country, states have encountered trouble when trying to buy execution drugs, as some companies have stopped allowing their compounds to be purchased by governments intending to use them for executions.

In 2012, Delaware’s Economic Development Office director, the former head of a drugstore chain, reached out to Cardinal Health to obtain the needed compounds, according to the Associated Press.

Delaware uses “pancuronium bromide, potassium chloride, and either pentobarbital or sodium thiopental depending on availability,” according to a Department of Correction spokesman.

Because no executions are scheduled and drugs expire relatively quickly, the state does not currently have a supply.

“We are not currently attempting to purchase drugs, and therefore we can’t speculate on whether we will face difficulty in securing them,” said Jason Miller, a department spokesman.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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