Delaware gets closer to reinstating death penalty

 This 2014 image shows an arm restraint of a gurney in an execution chamber. (Sue Ogrocki/AP Photo, file)

This 2014 image shows an arm restraint of a gurney in an execution chamber. (Sue Ogrocki/AP Photo, file)

Legislation to reinstate the death penalty in Delaware is moving forward.

Delaware is one step closer to restoring the death penalty less than a year after the state’s Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional.

After a two-hour impassioned debate on Wednesday, the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee voted 7-4 to move legislation to reinstate capital punishment to the House floor.

The bill’s sponsor Rep. Steve Smyk, R-Milton, and others in favor of the legislation, say they believe the death penalty prevents violent crime. They also believe the death of Lt. Steven Floyd during a February prison uprising might have been deterred if inmates thought they may receive a death sentence.

 “This is the one major influence of what took the life of Steven Floyd. We know the investigation is still ongoing, but if you were going to put chips on something I bet you’re going to see the person who took his life was already a lifer, and will only expect another life sentence,” Smyk said after the vote.

“Legislators see they do not want to put a weight on their shoulders of another homicide, another execution, and this is one way to say they did something to at least prevent it, not stop it, but reduce it and prevent it.”

However, those against the death penalty point to racial disparities in the system, issues of morality and the possibility of putting an innocent person to death.

“The death penalty should be something of the past,” Rep. J.J. Johnson,D-Wilmington, said after the vote. “We are a modern country, a modern state, and we should not be held to old barbaric criminal activity.”  

Last year, Delaware’s Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional, because it left the final decision of sentencing to the judge and removed it from the jury’s hands.

Smyk’s bill would require a unanimous decision by the jury, and the judge must agree the death penalty is a just punishment for the defendant.

This Supreme Court decision came several weeks after the General Assembly failed to pass legislation introduced by Rep. Sean Lynn, D-Dover, to abolish capital punishment. During Wednesday’s hearing, Lynn urged legislators not to allow Smyk’s bill to move forward.

“They can’t put in place a constitutional death penalty statute,” he said. “We are one of the only industrialized nations that continue to use this practice. None of the world’s most successful nations use the death penalty but for us.”

During public comment at Wednesday’s meeting, citizens, including loved ones of victims, political organizations and religious leaders expressed opposition to the death penalty.

“The death penalty is not really about the convicted, but about us the citizens of Delaware,” said Rev. Greg Chute, a Unitarian minister from Newark.

“Certainly, there are many circumstances that may warrant the death penalty. But we know such wrath does not ease our sorrow or loss. An execution does not bring closure. The pain and suffering carries on and on. Do we perpetuate violence? it sends a message it’s okay to kill—that killing is somehow justified.”

Several others, a majority of whom were members of law enforcement, said the death penalty is needed to prevent violent crime.

“We have seen over the years there are some truly evil people that commit heinous crimes against innocent people of this state. You do need the ultimate punishment for the ultimate crime,” said Lt. Tom Brackin, president of the Delaware Trooper’s Association.

A House vote is expected Thursday. Johnson said despite some opposition, he believes the legislation has enough support to pass in the House.

He said he believes the legislation has been rushed, and on Wednesday legislators and others were focused on the deaths of Lt. Floyd, and Cpl. Stephen J. Ballard, the Delaware state trooper who was gunned down outside a Wawa last week—prior to the vote, there was an annual memorial for fallen office outside Legislative Hall.

“I think issues like this are really done on emotion rather than deep thought. People don’t think about the consequences they just act on emotion,” Johnson said.

“I don’t think it was well thought out. I think they’ll meet unintended consequences when they do pass this legislation—they’ll find some other issues they haven’t addressed. I think if they took time and looked at the legislation they would find other flaws in it.”

 

 

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.