Delaware’s top stories of 2016

Take a look back at the top Delaware stories for a year which was dominated by politics and plenty of heartache.

In 2016, Delawareans elected a new governor eight years after his first attempt at running for the office. Voters in Wilmington waded through a crowded field to select a new mayor and for the first time ever, a woman will be Delaware’s lone representative in Congress.

That’s why Election 2016 leads our list of Delaware’s top stories in 2016.

Mayor Mike Purzycki

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Purzycki wins

The most contested race in the state was an effort to oust first term Wilmington Mayor Dennis Williams. A crowd of eight candidates, including Williams, vied for votes in the September Democratic primary. Williams declined to participate in a number of candidate debates and forums, including three out of four of the debates sponsored by WHYY and the Wilmington News Journal.

In 2012, Williams ran a successful campaign by pledging to reduce crime in Wilmington, but as incidents of violence and other crime grabbed headlines, Williams finished with just 13 percent of the primary vote. “I feel very vindicated. I’m a competitor, I’m going to retire. And I pray for the next mayor,” Williams said following his defeat.

He’ll be replaced by the former director of the Riverfront Development Corporation Mike Purzycki. In that role, Purzycki oversaw much of the redevelopment of the Wilmington Riverfront which has seen a number of residential and office buildings constructed in the past decade. Purzycki hopes to translate that success into other parts of the city. “When I think about the urgency of what we have to do in the city, the first images that comes to my mind are dealing with poverty, the young kids affected by poverty, schools and crime in those neighborhoods,” Purzycki said following his win.

Historic Congressional vote

Lisa Blunt Rochester wins

Delaware has never sent a woman to Congress. Voters in the First State have also never sent an African American to represent them in the Capitol. But that all changed in November when Lisa Blunt Rochester was elected as Delaware’s lone member of the U.S. House. “For the first time in our state’s founding, since 230 years ago, we are sending a woman and a person of color to Congress. I am humbled and honored to stand before you tonight to say we did it together,” said Blunt Rochester, during her victory speech. The U.S. House race was her first campaign, she previously has worked as Delaware’s Secretary of Labor and as the state’s personnel director, prior to running for Congress.

Eight years later

John Carney wins

Delaware’s House seat was open because Congressman John Carney was running- and won- a race for Governor. Carney first tried for governor in 2008 when he lost the Democratic primary to Governor Jack Markell, whom he is now replacing after two terms. Carney handily defeated his good friend Republican Colin Bonini. “It’s a little bit overwhelming,” Carney said to reporters following his speech. “I didn’t expect to run for governor again, frankly after losing the very close primary to Governor Markell in 2008.”

Beau Biden had announced his plans to run for governor before his death in 2015. Carney reflected on that fact after his win. “For me, it really kind of raised the bar that you don’t get a second chance in life often and to really put everything I had into this and recognize the real challenges that we face.”

Violent attack kills student

Teen girl killed at Wilmington school

Amy Joyner Francis, an honor roll student at Howard High School in Wilmington, died in April following an attack inside a bathroom at school. “It’s an unbelievable incident,” said Wilmington Police Chief Bobby Cummings.

The attack drew national attention. Three classmates were charged in the attack. A 16-year-old girl is charged with criminally negligent homicide. Police say she repeatedly hit Joyner Francis in the head and torso, which eventually led to her death. Authorities say Joyner-Francis, who had a pre-existing heart condition, died of sudden cardiac death, with a contributing factor of physical and emotional stress due to physical assault. Two other 16-year-old students are charged with conspiracy in the attack.

The incident happened just hours before candidates for Wilmington mayor were due to be at the school for a debate hosted by WHYY and the News Journal. That debate which was to focus on public safety was postponed.

The teens accused in the attack will be tried as juveniles in Family Court. A trial date has been set for April 3. The trio could have entered a guilty plea earlier this year, but instead opted for a trial.

Death penalty overturned

Death penalty overturned

After years of lobbying Delaware lawmakers to overturn the state’s death penalty, opponents of capital punishments got their wish via the Delaware Supreme Court.

In August, the state’s highest court ruled that the Delaware’s death penalty violates the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees the right to trial by a jury. In their opinion, Chief Justice Strine, and Justices Holland and Seitz wrote that “because the Delaware death penalty statute does not require juror unanimity, it is unconstitutional.”

Later in August, Delaware Attorney General Matt Denn said his office would not appeal the decision. At that same time, the AG’s office believed the ruling would not be retroactive to those already sentenced to death in Delaware. In December, the Supreme Court ruled that their ruling was in fact retroactive. That decision the dozen death row inmates in the state will likely be spared execution.

But the death penalty fight is not over. A group of Republican lawmakers vowed to change the state’s death penalty statute via legislation in the coming General Assembly session. “The ruling by the Delaware Supreme Court is an opportunity to craft a new, stronger capital punishment statute that not only meets constitutional standards, but also potentially contains safeguards to further augment the high integrity of the process it will replace,” the lawmakers wrote in August.

Three firefighters killed by arson

Wilmington firefighters killed in arson

Tragedy hit the Wilmington Fire Department in September. Three firefighters died while battling an early morning fire at a Canby Park rowhome.

Lt. Christopher Leach and Senior Firefighter Jerry Fickes were killed while fighting the fire. Leach was a 14-year-veteran of the fire department, while Fickes was a 13-year-veteran. “Firefighting was everything to them,” said Bruce Schweiger, president of the Local 1590 Wilmington Firefighter’s Association. “They both grew up in the volunteer system. Chris came on as an absolute go-getter. Jerry loved firefighting, I’m pretty sure every book in his locker was about firefighting. These two will both go down as great firemen.”

More than two months later, a third firefighter died from injuries suffered fighting the blaze. Senior Wilmington firefighter Ardythe Hope was planning to retire in January to become a nurse. “We love Ardy Hope, and we will always remember her and maintain her honor,” said Wilmington Fire Chief Anthony Goode. “While she maybe in a better place, and she may be smiling down upon us, ready to watch over us, we will definitely always miss her.”

A 27-year-old woman who lived in the Canby Park rowhome that went up in flames has been arrested and charged for setting the fire.

Beatriz Fana-Ruiz is the daughter of the home’s owner. She’s been charged with murder, four counts of assault, arson and reckless endangering.

Delay in Wilmington school reform

WEIC school reform plan on hold

After months of planning and meetings and hearings, the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission was unable to get lawmakers to back their proposal to make the first major overhaul of schools in Wilmington in decades.

That proposal was made up of two parts. The first called for the Christina School District–which currently represents a largely low-income section of Wilmington–to leave the city. Christina students in Wilmington would attend the neighboring Red Clay School District, which would in turn become the majority school district in Wilmington. The Brandywine and Colonial School Districts would continue to educate smaller subsections of city students.

The second part instructed the state legislature to pilot a new state funding formula that would have attached extra money to low-income students, English language learners, and special education students in Wilmington.

On the final day of the legislative session in June, lawmakers passed two measures set aside $200,000 in a “Wilmington Redistricting Transition Fund.” That money will be used to determine costs created by shifting district boundaries in Delaware’s biggest city.

That process is expected to last until next March, suggesting the redistricting proposal could be back in front of legislators next year. The legislative delay also ensures implementation of the plan will be delayed by at least year. Redistricting cannot happen now until fall of 2019 at the earliest.

Accident mars Punkin Chunkin return

Accident mars Punkin Chunkin return

2016 was supposed to be the celebrated return of the southern Delaware Punkin Chunkin tradition. But after a two year hiatus due to concerns about safety and liability insurance for the landowner hosting the event, the resumption pumpkin throwing competition ended with an accident that caused serious injuries to a woman.

The victim was reportedly working with a production company that was filming the event for the Science Channel. She was injured when an air cannon dubbed “Pumpkin Reaper” exploded after the trap door where pumpkins are loaded separated from the cannon during launch. Police say the door and other parts were blown away from the cannon and hit a 39-year-old woman in the face and neck.

The Science Channel cancelled its planned broadcast of the event in light of the incident.

It’s unclear what the future of the event will be.

Pennies and chickens and cows, oh my!

Pennies wreak havoc on Delaware traffic

After a year of heavy news, of politics and tragedy, there was some levity provided by the headlines in 2016. And although there may have been some headaches for drivers, the variety and frequency of items spilled across Delaware’s highways brought plenty of chuckles too.

The biggest and oddest incident happened in September when a truck carrying blank pennies overturned on I-95 on its way to the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. The result of 40,000 coins rolling around the highway? Gridlock. The accident shut down the interstate and cleanup lasted through the morning rush hour, causing hours-long backups.

While the driver only suffered minor injuries, the impact on morning traffic was major. DelDOT traffic cameras showed major backups throughout the area on northbound roadways as crews worked to clean up the mess.

In October, a truck carrying live chickens overturned on Rt. 1 near Smyrna after colliding with another truck. That sent chickens- some still living, others not- across the highway. While that didn’t cause as big of a traffic delay, it did leave drivers wondering what was next. That answer came a few weeks later when a truck hauling 15 cows overturned in the area as the penny truck crashed. While all the cows remained inside the truck, the ramp from 141 to 295 was closed for more than six hours while troopers investigated and crews worked to collect the animals and remove the truck.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

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

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal