Death penalty repeal bill squeaks through Senate
Amended death penalty bill passes 11-10
Mar 27, 2013
DOVER — The Senate approved with a narrow 11-10 vote Tuesday a bill repealing Delaware’s death penalty after it decided the 17 inmates now on death row should still face the ultimate punishment.
The vote came after an impassioned three-hour debate over the merits of capital punishment, including pleas from relatives of slain victims who said death was the only just sentence for the crimes that rocked their families.
The bill now goes to the House.
In the Senate, five Democrats and five Republicans voted to preserve the death sentence. Three Republicans — Minority Leader F. Gary Simpson of Milford, Ernie Lopez of Lewes and Catherine Cloutier of Brandywine Hundred — voted for repeal.
The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Karen Peterson, eliminates the death penalty from Delaware’s criminal code, making life in prison without the possibility of probation or parole the maximum penalty for a first-degree murder conviction.
Peterson said she knew the measure would pass by one vote, but the roll call was in flux in recent weeks.
“From day to day, the head count would change,” said Peterson, D-Stanton. “There was a core from the very beginning of 10 people, and the 11th changed from time to time. We knew from the beginning that the count would be 11.”
After weeks of remaining mostly silent on the issue, Attorney General Beau Biden sent two of his top criminal prosecutors to the Senate to declare his opposition to the repeal legislation.
“The attorney general is a supporter of the death penalty in its current form,” said Deputy Attorney General Steven Wood. “He believes the death penalty should be reserved for the worst of the worst.”
Wood argued the death penalty is used sparingly in Delaware, and it is not racially biased or unequally applied, as repeal supporters have alleged.
“In the last five years, there were 213 first-degree murder cases in Delaware,” he said. “We sought the death penalty in about 35 percent of those cases.
“The racial breakdown of our death row is actually slightly better than the racial breakdown for all those arrested and charged with first-degree murder,” Wood added.
Debate on the Senate floor began Tuesday with an amendment to preserve the sentences of 17 men currently on death row in the state. That amendment passed with the support of 19 senators.
In its original form, the bill would have commuted the sentences of the state’s death row inmates to life in prison. But Peterson attached the amendment shortly after she brought it to the Senate floor.
Peterson said she offered the amendment to remove legal confusion about the fate of those already sentenced that could cloud the debate in the House or cause the bill to be struck down later if signed into law.
Testimony on the amended bill was a recounting of many infamous killings in Delaware history and the fates of the murderers.
Senators on both sides of the debate brought forth family members of murdered victims.
Tina Leager’s former husband Kenneth Warren was murdered in their Kenton home in 1996. Killers Ralph Swan and Adam Norcross are currently on Delaware’s death row in that case.
“It’s not fair that they get put to sleep,” Leager said. “But Delaware law provides me an opportunity to make sure they pay for their crimes, and that’s the death penalty.”
Wilmington resident Kristin Froehlich’s brother was murdered in Connecticut in 1995 and prosecutors sought the death penalty, though the killer was later sentenced to life in prison. Putting a murderer to death does little to help a family recover from loss, she said.
“I knew then that the death penalty was a false promise and the legal process was separate from the grieving and healing process I needed to go through,” Froehlich said. “I have grown to despise the word closure because it doesn’t fit with anything I know.”
At the close of debate, Peterson evoked the biblical story of the crucifixion: “We could do what Pontius Pilate did and wash our hands, or we can put an end to it in Delaware.”http://www.delawareonline.com/article/20130327/NEWS/303260090/Death-penalty-repeal-bill-squeaks-through-Senate?nclick_check=1