Delaware joins the 21st century

    Rob Tornoe weighs in on the effort to overturn the death penalty in Delaware.



    Here is Rob Tornoe’s commentary.


    Politicians always want to seem tough, in command, ready to jump to action. Crime is nearly always an issue in local races, so when politicians are asked about the death penalty, their knee-jerk reaction is to support it, because it’s often one of most effective ways they can express their tough guy bonafides.


    For the life of me, I think this remains the primary reason why capital punishment still exists in this country. Just tough guy politicians pandering to angry constituents who want to be tough on crime at the expense of statics, finances and common sense. Especially the so-called “pro life” crowd, who don’t see the irony of small government advocates supporting the state’s right to murder someone.


    It’s also embarrassing that a heavily blue state like Delaware continues to follow the Bible’s prescribed method of punishing wrong doers. I mean, if we’re going to continue to subscribe to the “eye for an eye” justice that Moses prescribes, death row would be full right now with Sabbath breakers, blasphemers and adulterers. That sounds a bit too Old Testament, even for a state that hung an inmate as recently as 1996. (Delaware holds the dubious distinction of being the last state in the country where an inmate was hanged.)


    Back in the 21st century, study after study shows capital punishment hasn’t been a deterrent from crime since we stopped hanging people in the public square. As a state, we know a lot about hangings – it wasn’t until 1986 that we moved away from them as our official method of execution.


    When I think of the finality of the death penalty, I think about inmates like Jermaine Wright, who was given the death sentence for the January 1991 slaying of liquor store clerk Phillp Seifert. Back in January of 2012, after spending 21 years on death row, Wright’s conviction and death sentence were overturned after a judge ruled the evidence that convicted him was flawed.


    Otherwise, Wright would have faced the needle.


    Well, it seems a progressive wave is blowing across Delaware these days, and by the slimmest of margins, Democrats in the Senate were able to pass a bill last month that would repeal the death penalty entirely. If the death penalty repeal bill goes on to pass in the Assembly and is signed by Governor Markell, Delaware would become the 18th state to the ban the practice.


    But that’s by no means a certainty.


    Several Democrats, including Attorney General Beau Biden, have spoken out in favor of keeping the state’s right to kill people. But, as if they see the winds of change, they’ve becoming noticeably less outspoken about supporting it. 


    As Jonathan Starkey at The News Journal reported, Biden was noticeably missing from testimony given by a handful of police chiefs who oppose the repeal. “My position has not changed,” Biden said in a statement, which Dover Police Chief James Hosfelt called out as a “lack of support” for the fight against the death penalty.


    Governor Markell, who has been outspokenly in support of the upcoming marriage equality legislation, has been equally as mum as Biden on the issue of repealing the death penalty, choosing only to say he has “an open mind” towards the legislation. His actions point to a mixed bag on the issue – he has allowed two inmates to be put to death during his time in office, but commuted the sentence of another, making him the only governor in Delaware’s history to commute a death sentence.


    So maybe that’s a good sign. Instead of politicians beating their chest about the need to have capital punishment, their ambivalence towards the legislation may be a signal that we’re on track to repeal this barbaric practice for good in the First State.




    Rob Tornoe is a political cartoonist and a WHYY contributor. See more of his work at, and follow him on twitter @RobTornoe.







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