Does Delaware deserve to kill?

Delaware State Senator Karen Peterson, D-Stanton, is once again pushing a death penalty repeal. Rob puts forth the argument in his editorial cartoon.


Here is Rob’s commentary:

Here in tiny Delaware, the movement to repeal the death penalty has begun its annual spring migration. Once again, Sen. Karen Peterson is sponsoring the repeal legislation, and a full Senate debate could come as early as next Thursday, according to the News Journal.

As usual, Peterson and her allies are up against hard opposition from politicians who, despite all the evidence of the death penalty as a cruel and failed policy, are simply afraid of seeming weak on crime. 

To that point, Speaker of the House Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, who essentially controls the fate of the bill, has signaled the only way he would support the repeal of the death penalty is if it were amended to exclude the killers of police and correctional officers. Because, as I’m sure you already know, the life of a teacher or a store clerk isn’t as important as the life of a cop. 

We’ve known for years that there is not a single positive aspect that makes the death penalty a good policy decision. Not one. It doesn’t act as a deterrent to crime, it costs more than simply putting a criminal in jail for life without parole, it overwhelmingly targets poor defendants and occasionally, an innocent person is murdered by the state. 

Take the case of Jermaine Wright. After spending over 20 years in prison, Wright was freed from Delaware’s death row after a Superior Court judge threw out the videotape confession (given when he was 18-years-old, extremely sleep deprived and under the influence of heroin) that single-handedly convicted him of the 1991 killing of a liquor store clerk.

Despite the fact there were no eyewitnesses to the shooting and the gun was never found, Wright was convicted and sentenced to death, largely due to the fact that critical evidence about another robbery on the same night of the murder was withheld during his trial. 

I don’t know if Wright robbed the Hi-Way Inn that night and killed clerk Phillip Siefert. However, what I’ve read would surely waver my resolve if I were seeking to sentence him to death.

That’s the largest issue I have with the death penalty, and frankly it should be enough to get the policy banned in every state in this country. Since 1973, over 130 innocent people have been released from death row due to evidence of wrongful convictions. Just this week, Arizona resident Debra Milk was cleared of conspiring to murder her 4-year-old son after spending 22 years on death row.

In that case, Milk was convicted to die after a Phoenix police detective claimed she confessed to the plot, even though there was no witness or recording of her confession. It was also the only evidence that connected her to the murder. 

Our neighbors have sensibly begun to move away from this arcane form of punishment. Maryland abolished the death penalty in 2013 and commuted the sentences of the inmates that remained on death row. Newly elected Pa. Governor Tom Wolf issues a moratorium on the death penalty, calling it “a flawed system” that has proven itself to be “ineffective, unjust and expensive.”

Meanwhile, progressive-in-almost-every-other-way Delaware clings to its 18th century form of justice, aligning itself with such bastions of human rights as Saudi Arabia, Iran and China. You snicker, but it was as recently as 1996 when the state killed convicted murder Billy Bailey by hanging him from wooden gallows built in Smyrna. Yes, Delaware is the last state to kill someone by hanging. 

So far, Gov. Jack Markell hasn’t decided if he’ll support the death penalty repeal, which should be baffling considering the time he spent serving on Delaware’s Board of Pardons as state treasurer. Unfortunately, the politics are simple and transparent – repealing the death penalty means being labeled a “wimp” and “thug hugger” by vengeance-driven constituents solely motivated by their idea of justice. 

“We’ve been taught to think that the real question is, Do people deserve to die for the crimes they’ve committed?”  Bryan A. Stevenson, founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, said during his brilliant Ted Talk on the death penalty.

“The other way to think about this is the real question is not “Do people deserve to die for the crimes they’ve committed?” but “Do we deserve to kill?” 

Delaware doesn’t deserve to kill. No state does. So it’s time for Markell, Schwartzkopf, Attorney General Matt Denn and all our state leaders to stop worrying about being labeled as “weak on crime” and do the moral and decent thing by repealing the death penalty. 

After all, it’s 2015. Isn’t it about time we moved away from the Bible’s prescribed method of punishing wrong doers? Otherwise, make room on death row for adulterers, blasphemers and Sabbath breakers. 

Here are some other cartoons I’ve drawn over the years in opposition to the death penalty, when good politicians like Peterson tried and failed to get this blood stain of a policy eliminated from our judicial system.


Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and a WHYY contributor. Follow Rob on Twitter @RobTornoe. 

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