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Sponsor vows continued fight for death penalty repeal

February 2, 2016

Rep. Sean Lynn, D-Dover, after losing what had to be a tough battle, issued a strong statement affirming his belief that Delaware will repeal the death penalty.

The question is when.

Senate Bill 40, which would have ended capital punishment with the exception of those already on death row, last week went down to defeat
23-16.

“We’ve come further today than ever before,” Lynn said. For the last two years, SB 40 had been bottled up in committee.

He vowed to continue trying to persuade his colleagues, which include House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, a fellow Democrat from Rehoboth and a retired state trooper.

In a 2015 news story Schwartzkopf said he would oppose any death penalty repeal that didn’t include exemptions for those convicted of killing law enforcement officers.

Not doing so, he said, would “endanger every correctional officer in the place.”

The problem is, the evidence doesn’t back up this assertion.

Consider the experience of John Connor, a former prosecutor from Montana who handled five prison homicide cases. He once believed the death penalty was necessary to protect correctional officers from inmates serving life without parole.

No more.

“The reality is that death is not, and never has been, a deterrent,” he said. (Read his whole statement at the Death Penalty Information Center website.)

He instead offers a common sense alternative.

“Prison safety depends on proper staffing, equipment, resources and training,” he said.

Doesn’t that sound more logical? Correctional officers have a tough, stressful and dangerous job. Their safety should be paramount.

But if you care about the welfare of our correctional officers, it would be better to take concrete steps to actually help them stay safe and not depend on the tenuous notion that the death penalty will somehow protect them.

And yes, those steps cost money.

But so does the death penalty, which requires an extensive and expensive appeal process.

Connor baldly states, “I would never advocate for repealing the death penalty if I thought it placed our correctional personnel at risk.”

In Delaware, retired Judge Norman Barron underwent a similar conversion. Sometimes called the “hanging judge,” Barron sentenced five men to death.

But after 20 years of observing how the death penalty was exercised, he concluded its application was “quirky and capricious.”

Some murderers receive the death penalty, he said, while others “whose crimes are arguably worse in degree or savagery, do not.”

“Quirky” is a good word, but it’s about the last one you’d want used in connection with how the state carries out the ultimate punishment. Synonyms include “peculiar,” “odd,” “strange,” “eccentric,” and “unpredictable.”

Which means that, in a civilized society, the death penalty has become untenable and unacceptable.

And not just morally.

Barron also makes the rather prosaic argument that it doesn’t make economic sense.

Sounding more like an MBA than a lawyer, Barron wrote, “Strictly on a cost-benefit analysis, the costs of imposition of the death penalty far outweigh the benefits of its application.”

He continued, “Recent studies in California, Kansas and Maryland have all confirmed that the death penalty costs much more than life imprisonment.”

Those studies don’t even include the expense of the execution itself, Barron noted.

The costs associated with the death penalty accumulate, of course, because of the lengthy legal process.

But given the well-known flaws in our legal system, that process can’t be short-changed, unless we care to join the ranks of truly barbaric nations like North Korea.

We’ve had too many people exonerated by DNA evidence to believe our system acts with perfect justice.

Here’s our situation. We know the death penalty is expensive and ineffective as a deterrent.

In other words, it’s a perfect example of a government program that needs to be ended. Democrats and Republicans should be able to agree on this issue.

It’s likely that a compromise bill - one that retained the death penalty for those convicted of murdering a law enforcement officer - could pass the General Assembly.

But it would be a little like a bill that allowed a limited amount of slavery. It would be wrong and it wouldn’t make sense.


Don Flood is a former newspaper editor living near Lewes. He can be reached at floodpolitics@gmail.com.

 

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