Senate approves death penalty repeal 

Bill moves to House for final vote
March 29, 2013
Senators narrowly approved a bill to repeal the death penalty in Delaware, March 26. BY KARA NUZBACK

Delaware is on its way to joining the list of states that have outlawed capital punishment.

After more than two hours of testimony, senators voted 11-10, March 26 to approve Senate Bill 19, which would outlaw the death penalty in Delaware.

If it passes the House, the bill would make life imprisonment without the possibility of parole the ultimate punishment for first-degree murder.

Senate Minority Leader Gary Simpson, R-Milford, is among the seven sponsors of the bill in the Senate.  He said he supported the bill because of the possibility a person sentenced to death could be innocent.  “We know that our system is not 100 percent accurate,” he said.

Simpson also said he felt it was morally wrong to take a life.

The Senate voted 19-0 to amend the bill so that inmates currently sentenced to death would not be affected by the new law.

Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, said he was glad the amendment was added.  Pettyjohn recalled driving to the scene of the crime on the night in September 2009 when Derrick Powell shot Georgetown Patrolman Chad Spicer.

He said Spicer’s mother, Ruth Ann Spicer, wants Powell put to death.  “And I’m happy to see the amendment was put it,” he said.

Pettyjohn said he was concerned about the next family who has to endure the loss of a loved one in the police force; he voted against the repeal.

A few witnesses were called to testify in favor of the bill, including Kirk Bloodsworth, the first American on death row to be exonerated by DNA evidence.

Bloodsworth said he was an honorably discharged Marine and a crab fisherman from Cambridge, Md., before he was accused of brutally murdering a young girl in 1984.  “She was viciously attacked, sexually assaulted and brutalized,” he said.

Bloodsworth said witness after witness swore he committed the crime.  “I had never been arrested for anything in my life,” he said.

“I respect Delaware’s legal system, but in the end, the system is run by human beings,” Bloodsworth said.  “A system run by human beings just can’t be foolproof.”

Nearly twice as many people were called to testify against the bill as those who were called in favor.

Senate Minority Whip Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley, read a letter in opposition to the bill from Mark and Kathleen Bonistall, the parents of Lindsey Bonistall, who was beaten, raped and murdered by James Cooke, who was sentenced to death for the crimes in 2007.

The Bonistalls said Cooke showed no remorse during the trial, and he lied in court about the events surrounding their daughter’s death.  “In essence, he victimized Lindsey over and over again,” they wrote.

“Her family is counting on you to do the right thing,” Lavelle read.  “Please don’t let the judicial process, our tragedy, trauma and pain to be in vain.”

The Bonistalls said they would find peace only when Cooke is dead.

Steven Wood, of the Attorney General’s Office, prosecuted the case against Cooke; he said Attorney General Beau Biden supports the death penalty.

Wood responded to opponents’ accusations that the death penalty was racially biased.  He said in the last five years, 79 percent of people charged with first-degree murder were African American, but only 59 percent of death row inmates are African American.

Wood also said of the 213 total first-degree murder cases in Delaware in the last five years, the death penalty was sought in only 35 percent, about 75 cases.  There are 17 inmates who currently face the death penalty in Delaware.

“The death penalty is reserved for the worst of the worst,” he said.
Wood also said three of the 17 inmates awaiting execution in Delaware had been convicted of homicide in the past, but they were released from prison and they killed again.  “Murderers who are executed cannot re-offend,” he said.

Just before the vote, the bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. Karen Peterson, D-Stanton, said her religious views factored into her support of the bill.  “This week is Holy Week,” she said.  “This is the week we recall the last days of Jesus Christ.”

Peterson said Christ committed blasphemy, which was a capital crime.  Throngs of people told Pontius Pilate to crucify Christ, but Pilate did not want to, she said, so he washed his hands of responsibility for Christ’s death.

Peterson said the state could choose to wash its hands of responsibility or admit that putting a man to death is wrong.

SB 19, which had seven sponsors in the Senate, now moves to the House, where it has an additional 12 bipartisan sponsors.

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