Committee hears testimony on death penalty repeal

Senate to consider SB 19, March 26
Sen. Gary Simpson, R-Milford, introduces a bill to repeal the death penalty in Delaware.  Simpson is on the committee that released the bill to the Senate floor, March 20. BY KARA NUZBACK
March 26, 2013

A bill to repeal the death penalty in Delaware is making its way through the General Assembly.

Senate Bill 19 would remove all language related to execution from the Delaware code, ending the death penalty statewide.  Life imprisonment without the possibility of parole would become the ultimate punishment for first-degree murder.

The Senate Executive Committee voted 4-2 to release the bill to the Senate floor, March 20, after two hours of testimony mostly in favor of repeal.  Three of the six committee members – Senate Minority Leader Gary Simpson, R-Milford; Senate Majority Whip Margaret Rose Henry, D-Wilmington East; and Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington North – are sponsors of the bill.

SB 19 has a total of 17 bipartisan sponsors.

Newark resident Stewart Dotts testified in favor of repeal.  Dotts said he was on the jury that sentenced James Cooke to death in June 2007.  Cooke was found guilty of the rape and murder of 20-year-old Lindsey Bonistall in 2005.

“Thus, I became a killer too,” Dotts said.  “I will never be the same.”

Dotts said the state places an inconceivable burden on innocent people by putting them in a position to kill another human.

Attorney Brendan O’Neill, who represented Cooke during his trial, also testified in favor of the bill.  “It is morally wrong,” he said.  “Thou shalt not kill is one of our 10 commandments.”

O’Neill said many criminals sentenced to death are mentally ill, drug addicts or poor.  “We do and can punish them,” he said.  “But we should not kill them.”

Several religious leaders testified in support of the bill, including Rev. Walter Everett, whose son was shot and killed in Connecticut in 1987.  “You get closure when you buy a house, not after the death of a loved one,” he said.  “People’s lives do not change after an execution.”

Everett said a life sentence allows victims’ families to begin the healing process years earlier than a death sentence would.

University of Delaware Associate Professor Ben Fleury-Steiner testified death sentences are at an all-time low in the U.S., and many states are trending toward abolishing the death penalty.

Earlier this month, Maryland became the 18th state in the nation to repeal the death penalty.

Although the death penalty is still legal in many states, Fleury-Steiner said only a few counties impose the majority of executions, but nearly all taxpayers in the country foot the bill.

A few law enforcement officials spoke out against SB 19 at the hearing. “I understand the necessity for having the death penalty,” said Georgetown Police Chief Bill Topping.

He testified he was a volunteer firefighter in 1992, and he was one of the officials who found the remains of Michelle Lawrie and her children, who were killed by Lawrie’s estranged husband, David Lawrie.

David Lawrie was executed by the state in 1999.

Topping also recalled the killing of Georgetown Patrolman Chad Spicer in September 2009. “I attended that trial along with his family ever single day,” Topping said.  “His killer was found guilty.”

Spicer’s killer, Derrick Powell, now sits on Death Row.

Topping refuted the claim that the death penalty is more expensive than life imprisonment.  “The fact is, we can’t put a price on removing people from society who have committed the worst crimes we could imagine,” he said.

Lewes Police Chief Jeff Horvath said none of the 142 death row inmates exonerated in the U.S. has been in Delaware.  “We have one of the finest court systems and judiciaries in the country,” he said.  “We believe the residents of Delaware have faith in our criminal justice system.”

Horvath also said there was no way to gauge whether the Death Penalty was a deterrent because no criminal would ever admit to considering murder.  “All of our laws are deterrents to some people,” he said.

Horvath also pointed out no victims of Delaware crimes had yet testified in favor of the repeal.

Kathy Dillon, who testified in favor of the bill, said there are likely victims who want to speak out against the death penalty, but are afraid of the backlash from their own community.  “I know what that pressure feels like,” she said.

Dillon said her father, New York State Trooper Emerson Dillon, was shot and killed in the line of duty in 1974.  Dillon said her father’s killer escaped the death penalty because of one juror’s vote, and she is thankful her family did not have to endure years of legal proceedings that would have accompanied a death sentence.

The Senate is scheduled to consider SB 19 Tuesday, March 26.

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