House to vote on death penalty repeal today

DOVER — Nearly three years after a renewed attempt to repeal the death penalty failed, the issue finally will be decided.

House members will vote on legislation abolishing capital punishment in Delaware today and prime sponsor Rep. Sean Lynn, D-Dover, believes he has the necessary support.

If the bill passes, it will go to Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat, who has said he will sign it.

In 2013, repeal legislation passed the Senate two weeks after being introduced but then stalled in the House Judiciary Committee. It languished there until the end of the 147th General Assembly more than a year later.

Rep. Sean Lynn

Rep. Sean Lynn

Last year, Senate Bill 40 again moved through the Senate but, by a 6-5 vote, failed to make it out of the same House committee. In the aftermath of the May vote, Rep. Lynn promised to suspend the rules in an attempt to bring the bill to the floor.

However, he never did so, indicating a shortage of votes. While he said he still was prepared to make the motion, the bill appeared as though it would meet the same fate as its predecessor.

All that changed one week ago.

In a surprise announcement Jan. 21, the House Democratic caucus said the chairman of the Judiciary Committee had decided to sign on unfavorably, indicating he did not personally support the bill but believed it should be decided by the full chamber.

“The more and more I talked to people, senior members that I respect, both present and have gone on and retired, I just felt it was a bigger issue than me and I needed to at least at some point give the opportunity for the members of the General Assembly and the House to debate it and vote it,” Chairman Rep. Larry Mitchell, D-Elsmere, said Wednesday.

Mitchell, a former Elsmere and New Castle County police officer, is one of five police officers in the legislature. All five have opposed repeal and police unions have spoken vehemently in favor of keeping the practice.

They said it serves as a deterrent and allows the state to rid itself of violent and dangerous criminals who might otherwise be able to gain release from even a sentence of life in prison.

Opponents say mistakes can be made and claim the penalty is applied disproportionately to minorities, the poor and the mentally ill.

Fourteen convicted killers currently await execution in Delaware. The bill would not apply to them.

DELAWARE'S DEATH ROW A brief history of the death penalty in Delaware: • The first execution to be carried out in Delaware was reportedly a hanging in September 1662. Accounts of early executions are sketchy, but historical newspaper articles report there were seven executions in Delaware from 1831 to 1902. Formal records were established in 1902. • 25 people were executed, all by hanging, from 1902 to 1946. • 1958: On April 2, Gov. J. Caleb Boggs signed into law a bill abolishing the death penalty. Delaware became only the second state in the nation to abolish the death penalty. Missouri, in 1917, was the first state to do so. • 1961: The Delaware Legislature passed a bill reinstating the death penalty, but Gov. Elbert N. Carvel vetoed the bill on Dec. 12. However, both the Senate and House overrode the veto, so on Dec. 18 the death penalty was reinstated. • 1986: Legislation was enacted that made lethal injection the mode of execution. The law also stipulated that individuals sentenced to death prior to the new law’s enactment would have the choice of choosing their mode of execution— either hanging or lethal injection. In response to the new law, the Department of Correction rebuilt the gallows and purchased a mobile lethal-injection chamber. • 1992: On March 14, Delaware carried out the execution of Steven Brian Pennell, the first execution in the state since 1946. • 1994: On April 11, Gov. Thomas Carper signed into law legislation that mandates an execution is to be carried out between the hours of 12:01 and 3 a.m. • 1996: On Jan. 25, Billy Bailey was the first person in nearly 50 years to be executed by hanging. Records indicate the last previous execution by hanging took place in 1946. • 2000: The Department of Correction constructed a new execution chamber on the grounds of the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna. The chamber was a permanent structure that replaced the previously used trailer. The execution of Dwayne L. Weeks on Nov. 17 was the first carried out in the new chamber. • 2003: The Department of Correction dismantled its gallows because the last inmate eligible to be executed by hanging won a new trial and life sentence. This made the Delaware gallows obsolete, so the structure was dismantled and disposed.

DELAWARE’S DEATH ROW
A brief history of the death penalty in Delaware:
• The first execution to be carried out in Delaware was reportedly a hanging in September 1662. Accounts of early executions are sketchy, but historical newspaper articles report there were seven executions in Delaware from 1831 to 1902. Formal records were established in 1902.
• 25 people were executed, all by hanging, from 1902 to 1946.
• 1958: On April 2, Gov. J. Caleb Boggs signed into law a bill abolishing the death penalty. Delaware became only the second state in the nation to abolish the death penalty. Missouri, in 1917, was the first state to do so.
• 1961: The Delaware Legislature passed a bill reinstating the death penalty, but Gov. Elbert N. Carvel vetoed the bill on Dec. 12. However, both the Senate and House overrode the veto, so on Dec. 18 the death penalty was reinstated.
• 1986: Legislation was enacted that made lethal injection the mode of execution. The law also stipulated that individuals sentenced to death prior to the new law’s enactment would have the choice of choosing their mode of execution— either hanging or lethal injection. In response to the new law, the Department of Correction rebuilt the gallows and purchased a mobile lethal-injection chamber.
• 1992: On March 14, Delaware carried out the execution of Steven Brian Pennell, the first execution in the state since 1946.
• 1994: On April 11, Gov. Thomas Carper signed into law legislation that mandates an execution is to be carried out between the hours of 12:01 and 3 a.m.
• 1996: On Jan. 25, Billy Bailey was the first person in nearly 50 years to be executed by hanging. Records indicate the last previous execution by hanging took place in 1946.
• 2000: The Department of Correction constructed a new execution chamber on the grounds of the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna. The chamber was a permanent structure that replaced the previously used trailer. The execution of Dwayne L. Weeks on Nov. 17 was the first carried out in the new chamber.
• 2003: The Department of Correction dismantled its gallows because the last inmate eligible to be executed by hanging won a new trial and life sentence. This made the Delaware gallows obsolete, so the structure was dismantled and disposed.

In the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, a Delaware judge certified several questions to the state Supreme Court on the constitutionality of Delaware’s death penalty Monday. At issue is that Delaware judges can overrule a jury to impose a death sentence, which might conflict with the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

While that looms, today’s vote could make any potential Supreme Court decision moot.

Rep. Mitchell’s shift in opinion came even as a surprise to Rep. Lynn, who said he first found out just 10 minutes before the news release was issued last week.

While Rep. Lynn expects the vote to be close, he believes the legislation has the needed 21 supporters. Fifteen representatives are listed as co-sponsors. At least 13 members of the House voted against the bill in committee or publicly have opposed it, either in statements or in candidate surveys.

That leaves 12 remaining lawmakers, of whom six would have to vote “yes” for the bill to pass.

Rep. Mitchell said he has “no idea” if the bill will pass.

“It really could go either way,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to be, one way or the other, an outlandish number of votes.”

Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark, a supporter of the bill, even rescheduled a flight to ensure he can make the vote.

Outside the legislature, supporters and opponents were active.

Delaware Center for Justice hosted a news conference at Legislative Hall Wednesday. Christ Episcopal Church, in Dover, will hold a prayer session all day today.

On the flip side, Kimberly Mascheri and her siblings, Joy and Greg, have been contacting fellow death-penalty supporters and urging them to notify lawmakers. The siblings’ grandparents, Lorenzo and Mamie Whaley, were murdered in 1961. Afterward, the family began advocating for capital punishment, which had been abolished in 1958, to be re-instated. The practice began again in 1962.

Ms. Mascheri believes most Delawareans support the death penalty for convicted murderers.

An April poll from the Delaware Center for Justice and Public Policy Polling showed 63 percent of Delawareans support the death penalty but 64 percent also thought life in prison was more suitable as a punishment for murder than the penalty.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Markell said the governor was not involved in the bill making it out of committee, but is supportive of Rep. Mitchell’s decision.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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