Death penalty repeal stalled by committee

Sponsors say they will continue to push SB 19
April 29, 2013

A bill to abolish the death penalty in Delaware is up in the air after the measure failed to garner enough votes to get out of committee.

Senate Bill 19, which would end capital punishment and make life in prison without parole the ultimate punishment for convicted felons, passed the Senate in a tight 11-10 vote March 26.  The bill has been sitting in the House Judiciary Committee since March 28.

The committee held a hearing April 24; before it began, supporters rallied on the back steps of Legislative Hall in Dover, while those opposed to the bill – mostly police officers – gathered around the Delaware Law Enforcement Memorial on the opposite side of the building.

At the hearing, family members of victims testified on both sides of the issue.  Ruth Ann Spicer, mother of Georgetown Patrolman Chad Spicer, who was shot and killed by Derrick Powell in September 2009, testified against abolishing the death penalty.

Spicer said Powell had planned to commit a crime, and he was fleeing the scene when he shot Spicer.  “He also told witnesses he was going to kill a police officer,” she said.  “Justice prevailed, and he was sentenced to death.”

Carol Taylor, the daughter of Dorothy Gudger, who was murdered by Michael Purnell on Halloween night in 2011, also testified against the bill.  “After being raped, my mother’s own belt was used to strangle her to death,” she said.

But Walter Everett, whose son was shot and killed in Connecticut in 1987, testified in favor of ending the death penalty.  Everett said rage is a normal reaction when a loved one is killed, but the state should focus on helping families heal, rather than seeking retribution.

Dover resident Anne Coleman testified her daughter, Frances, was shot to death in Los Angeles in 1985.  She said her son, Daniel, later committed suicide because of Frances’ death.

Coleman said she supports repeal, and the money spent prosecuting capital cases would be better spent to help treat victims’ families.

Also testifying in favor of repeal  religious leaders and representatives of the NAACP, League of Women Voters and the Public Defender’s Office said the death penalty was racially biased and expensive and that it fails to deter crime.

Rep. Darryl Scott, D-Dover, a bill sponsor and a member of the House Judiciary Committee, presented the bill to committee members.  Scott said use of capital punishment puts the United States in the company of unlikely bedfellows.  “China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Pakistan – their values are not our values,” he said.  “Justice can be served without the killing of our citizens.”

Delaware Public Defender Brendan O’Neill testified his office spends about $2.3 million each year defending capital cases.  He said he did not know how much money the state would save by abolishing the death penalty.  “I can tell you, there will be savings,” he said.

Randy Steidl, who served 17 years in prison in Illinois – 12 of them on death row – for murders for which he was later exonerated, supports repeal.  “Don’t risk the possibility of executing an innocent person,” he said.

Members of the law enforcement community and the Attorney General’s Office testified against the bill, arguing the death penalty works in Delaware and is administered without bias.  Kathleen Jennings, of the Department of Justice, said the death penalty is reserved for the worst of the worst.

“Law enforcement in Delaware strongly supports the death penalty,” said Camden Police Chief William Bryson, who serves on the executive board of Delaware Police Chief’s Council.

Fred Calhoun, president of Delaware Fraternal Order of Police, said if police are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, criminals should pay the ultimate price.

Rep. John Atkins, D-Millsboro, also testified against the bill on behalf of the law enforcement community.  “This is a game-changer on how they do their jobs and what we do to protect them,” he said.

After about two hours of testimony, Scott made a motion to table the bill.

Sen. Karen Peterson, the bill’s lead sponsor who attended the hearing, said Scott knew the bill did not have enough votes to be released to the House floor.

Reps. Steve Smyk, R-Milton; Dave Wilson, R-Bridgeville; Jeffrey Spiegelman, R-Clayton; W. Charles Paradee, D-Dover; Rebecca Walker, D-Townsend; and John Mitchell, D-Wilmington, were opposed to allowing the full House to hear the bill, Peterson said.

But Scott’s motion failed in a 5-5 vote, and no action was taken on the bill.  “A committee can’t defeat a bill,” Peterson said.  “It just remains alive in committee.”

“We never thought leaving it hang there was an option, but it’s definitely the better option for us,” she said.  “We plan to keep working the bill.”

Peterson said when she and Scott are confident they can convince a sixth person to agree the bill should be released from committee, they plan to put the bill back on the agenda.

Currently, Scott and Reps. Charles Potter, D-Wilmington North; Melanie George Smith, D-Bear/Newark; Gerald Brady, D-Wilmington West; and James Johnson, D-New Castle East, would vote to release the bill, Peterson said.

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