More than most, death penalty issue crosses party lines

April 2, 2013

When Rep. Darryl Scott of Dover told me a couple of months ago that the death penalty might be repealed this session, I wasn’t sure it was possible.

Now the state Senate has passed the bill, 11-10, and on Thursday it moved to the House Judiciary Committee. The close vote, obviously, indicates the bill isn’t a sure thing, especially since Gov. Jack Markell has yet to say he would sign it.

In a puzzling stance, the governor has said only that he has an “open mind” on death penalty repeal. I can understand people being either for or against the death penalty, but it’s hard to imagine an intelligent, thinking man like the governor not having formed an opinion. Perhaps he’s concerned about the issue hurting him in a future election (though not for governor, since he can’t run again).

I can understand, for example, why some local police chiefs, such as Georgetown’s William Topping and Lewes’s Jeff Horvath, favor keeping the death penalty, especially for those accused of killing cops. Facing the family of a dead police officer, killed while protecting the public, is a horror no one should have to face.

But as much as I respect the dangers faced by police officers, it doesn’t make sense to carve out an exception. That’s one of the main problems with the death penalty, the capriciousness with which the sentences are handed out.

If the victim is white, the accused stands a much greater chance of receiving the death penalty than if the victim is black. Rich people with good lawyers basically don’t face the death penalty.

Killing a police officer is a horrible crime, but so is killing a 3-year-old child. Is one worse than the other?

In both cases, though, emotions run high. Police operate under enormous pressure to arrest a suspect. Cases where the public is most demanding of justice are the ones most likely to result in a miscarriage of justice.

Some contend that Delaware’s judicial system is superior to other states, that we have not executed any innocent men. I hope that’s true, but I doubt we can say that with absolute certainty. We may have a good judicial system, but we’re not perfect. Nationally, in the past 40 years, 140 men on death row have been exonerated.

An interesting aspect of the issue is how it crosses party lines. Though the bill is more generally favored among Democrats, Republican senators Gary Simpson of Milford, a bill sponsor, and Ernie Lopez of Lewes voted in favor of repeal. Democrats Bruce Ennis of Smyrna and Bethany Hall-Long of Middletown voted against. Another top Democrat, Attorney General Beau Biden, has indicated he still supports the death penalty, and in past cases he has sought the death penalty.

If the bill passes the House, the governor, too, will have to decide.

Judge makes clear ruling

In an unrelated matter, the state judiciary has performed well, issuing an opinion that brings it one step closer to deciding whether the county sheriff has powers of arrest. Superior Court Judge T. Henley Graves ruled unequivocally that he did not.

This case has been an extraordinary waste of time and money; the state constitution simply doesn’t give the sheriff that power. And Jeff Christopher’s views on what his powers should be are jaw-dropping. In his Superior Court suit, he contended that he should be able to enforce laws “without direction, restriction or interference of any kind from any other government official.”

No civilian control. Taken literally, it would make the sheriff a virtual dictator. Probably wouldn’t happen, but no one should have that much power. Unfortunately, it will probably go the Supreme Court.

But it’s hard for this layman to see on what grounds the state Supreme Court would overturn the lower court’s ruling.

  • A number of accomplished writers will be appearing in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.

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