DOVER — Supporters of the death penalty repeal are ramping up outreach events despite a stalemate among state lawmakers.
When Sen. Karen Peterson, D-Stanton, and Rep. Darryl Scott, D-Dover, unveiled Senate Bill 19 nearly a year ago, it was immediately met with strong passions.
The legislation would abolish the death penalty, but keep death penalty sentences for the 18 men currently on Delaware’s death row.
Hours of public hearings and debates characterized the middle of the 147th legislative session. The bill narrowly passed in the Delaware Senate by an 11-10 vote, but it has remained tabled in the House Judiciary Committee since April 30.
Proponents of the repeal, through the Delaware Repeal Project, a coalition of 28 local, state and national organizations working to eliminate Delaware’s death penalty, began outreach in October to spark community interest. Now, they are mobilizing across the state.
From Thursday through Sunday, the group invited members from Witness to Innocence, an organization comprised of death row exonerees, to share their stories at events from Newark to Dover and to urge legislators to consider SB 19 on the floor of the House.
“You know it’s time to let the death penalty go,” said Kirk Bloodsworth, a former death row inmate from Maryland who was wrongfully accused of the rape and murder of a nine year old in 1985.
Mr. Bloodsworth served two years on death row and seven more in the prison system. He became the first American sentenced to death row to be exonerated by DNA fingerprinting.
Now he lobbies for repeal of the death penalty.
“No innocent person should be sent to death row,” he said.
Mr. Bloodsworth shared his story during the public testimony portion of the bill’s proceedings in the state Senate.
Currently, 18 states are without the death penalty including New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and, most recently, Maryland.
But, there are no guarantees that the bill will make it to the House floor in Delaware. SB 19 needs six signatures to be released from the 11-member committee.
If the bill is not released out of committee in a traditional vote, two courses of action can be taken: A majority of the committee members can sign the bill in the House of Representatives’ clerk’s office, where legislation is stored, to get the bill released from committee; or the rules can be suspended to bring it to a full vote on the House floor.
“I don’t think any of the committee members are changing their vote at this point,” said Rep. Rebecca Walker, D-Middletown, House Judiciary Committee chairwoman.
She doesn’t believe in circumventing the committee process to bring the bill to a full vote, however.
“I try to be very consistent and predictable. I will not do anything that is not out in public and on notice; it doesn’t matter what the bill is,” Rep. Walker said.
Before the General Assembly reconvened for the second half of the 147th legislative session Jan. 14, House Speaker Rep. Pete Schwarzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, advised against working this bill this year. He suggested supporters continue outreach efforts after the 2014 mid-term elections in November.
Lawmakers agree even from across the aisle,
“As far as I’m concerned I’m not going to change my mind on that bill,” said Rep. Jeff Spiegelman, R-Hartly, one of three Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee.
He believes the feasibility of the bill coming up for discussion rests with the leadership in the House.
“That’s what makes this up in the air,” Rep. Spiegelman added.
As the legislative session continues, bill sponsor Rep. Scott said he has become less optimistic about the bill being released from committee by a traditional vote. Given the magnitude of the issue, he supports suspending the rules and moving the bill to a full vote, but securing 21 solid votes is no easy feat.
“Every time I take a head count, it seems to be a little different,” Rep. Scott said.
“I would like to see us address this in March when we come back [from the Joint Finance Committee recess], I don’t see us lingering until June 30.”
Those interested in the canvassing efforts should visit www.derepeal.org or www.witnesstoinnocence.org.
Staff writer Jen Rini can be reached at 741-8250 or email@example.com. Follow @DSNJen_Rini on Twitter.