DOVER — Senate Bill 19, an act to repeal the death penalty in Delaware, narrowly passed the state Senate Tuesday with a vote of 11-10.
A discussion spanning almost three hours in the Senate Chamber garnered impassioned testimonies from police officers, legislators and families as well as state attorneys of either support or opposition for the death penalty.
The bill’s primary sponsor, Karen E. Peterson, D-Stanton, issued an amendment to the bill which she introduced that afternoon. The amendment removed the retroactive provision which stated that “any person who has been sentenced to death prior to the effective date of this act shall instead be punished by imprisonment for the remainder of the person’s natural life without benefit of probation or parole or any other reduction.” Meaning, the 17 men on Delaware’s Death Row would still get the death penalty.
The amendment passed with 19 votes. Sen. Peterson said the amendment may help the bill’s cause when it is heard on the floor of the House of Representatives, but it wasn’t amended without some disappointment
“Were we disappointed to take it out, sure, it would have been nice to make history and do the first repeal that also repeals retroactively,” Sen. Peterson said. “But I was really afraid that if we were somehow to lose that part of it and I’m sure there would have been a challenge.”
She named the state’s attorney general’s office as one of the challengers. The office of Attorney General Joseph R. “Beau” Biden III has stated that his position on the death penalty has not changed — he will continue to seek it for the worst circumstances.
“It’s rarely applied, it is judicially applied, it is fairly applied,” said Deputy Attorney General Steven Wood during his testimony. In the past five years, he said there have been 213 first-degree murder cases in the state and in only 35 percent of those cases has the office sought the death penalty as an option, with still only 17 men on death row.
Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1992, Delaware has carried out 16 executions. In the past two years, Delaware has carried out two executions. In 2011, Robert W. Jackson III was the first person to be executed in Delaware since 2005. He was sentenced to death by lethal injection for the 1992 killing of Elizabeth Giradi, 47, during a robbery at her home in Hockessin. In April 2012, 28-year-old Shannon Johnson was put to death by lethal injection for the 2006 gunshot murder of Cameron Hamlin near downtown Wilmington.
For Kristen Froelich, of Wilmington, seeking the death penalty for her brother’s killer did not give her peace. Her brother had been murdered in Connecticut almost 18 years ago.
“For me grieving and healing are lifelong, and the death penalty wasn’t a way to complete either,” Ms. Froelich said.
On the other hand, rookie lawmaker Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, said the family of Georgetown police officer Chad Spicer, seeks a justice only the death penalty could bring. Mr. Spicer was killed by current death row inmate Derrick Powell, in 2009.
SB 19 was not passed on a bipartisan vote, a mixture of Republicans and Democrats opposed or favored the legislation. Sen. Bruce C. Ennis, D-Smyrna, was one Democrat in opposition. Given his background working as a police officer, he said through his experiences he has found that the death penalty is justified in some circumstances.
“I just think the punishment should meet your crime,” he said.
“We’ll see what the House does,” he added.
Sen. F. Gary Simpson, R-Milford, said he has been wrestling with the idea of the death penalty for nearly 40 years — and ultimately feels their are some flaws to the system. And while technically it is the state administering a lethal injection, he said he is part of the voices to either keep the law or repeal it.
“I just don’t feel I have the right to take someone’s life,” Sen. Simpson said.
Brendan O’Neill, the head of the state’s Public Defender office, also voiced similar concerns with the death penalty, stating that even though they are criminals it is part of the human experience to respect their dignity and constitutional rights.
“As a society we have an obligation to treat them humanely,” Mr. O’Neill said.
Sen. Peterson said that the costs put out up-front by the Office of the Public Defender in death penalty cases can account for nearly 70 percent of the total costs. Currently the office has $2.4 million allotted for those cases in the state’s budget. If the death penalty is repealed, that money could be used elsewhere, she said.
She cited a study conducted by the Urban Institute which found that, in Maryland, an average death penalty trial costs $3 million compared to $1.1 million for non-death penalty cases. Though the state will not be conducting a similar survey, she said the findings are good benchmarks.
The bill’s fate rests in the House.
“I think it will be close, but we’ll get a pass,” Sen. Peterson said.
Staff writer Jen Rini can be reached at 741-8250 or email@example.com.
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