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Death penalty repeal advocates remain vocal as bill clears first hurdle

Delaware Public Media

So far, anti death penalty advocates have out campaigned their opponents in public as a bill to repeal the practice was released from a senate committee Wednesday.

The judiciary committee hearing lasted about an hour and drew nearly 100 people to the senate chamber.Half of the public speakers were religiously affiliated, the majority of them Christian. All but one of the speakers commenting supported the bill.

Supporters mostly argued against the practice on moral grounds, some calling it “barbaric.” Others brought up racial disparity in sentencing people to death.

"The value of my brother's life was not diminished because his killer didn't get the death penalty," said Kristin Froehlich, president of Delaware Citizens Opposed to the Death Penalty. "If his killer was given the death sentence, it's very likely we could be waiting for that sentence to be carried out," said Froehlich, noting it would have made it more difficult to cope with her brother's murder.

A 2012 Cornell University study found that black defendants who kill a white victim are six times more likely to receive the death penalty than if they killed someone of their own race.

That’s in contrast to white defendants who were about as likely to get sent to death row for killing a black victim, as they were a white victim according to the study.

Repeal advocates also point to the Jermaine Wright case, which they’re expected to lean on in the coming months.

Wright was convicted of a 1991 murder and was just released from death row and prison entirely last month pending an appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Lewes Police Chief Jeffrey Horvath, the one person who spoke against the bill, says that case doesn’t diminish Delaware’s justice system in his mind.

"We don’t see how that is a failure of our system," said Horvath. "That is a success of our system. The person who was on the death penalty was removed from the death penalty for a good reason.”

But Sen. Karen Peterson (D-Stanton), the chief sponsor of the legislation views things a bit differently.

“I would not want to be the person to tell Jermaine Wright, who spent 20 years on death row in Delaware, that he’s a success story. Really? 20 years on death row and we’re going to claim that he’s one of our successes? I don’t think so,” said Peterson.

Right now, Delaware is among 32 states allowing capital punishment. The state last executed convicted murderer Shannon Johnson in 2012.

Kirk Bloodsworth, the first death row inmate in the US exonerated by DNA evidence, made another appearance during the hearing. Proponents brought him in to testify in 2013, as well as other high-profile activists like former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who have had little effect on moving the political needle.

The House Judiciary Committee kept the bill tabled since 2013 after it barely passed the full senate 11-10.

Horvath, who also represents the Police Chiefs Council, says the proposal should go before the people.

“Why can’t this go to a vote, to a referendum? Why can’t we hear what the public wants instead of what my interest group wants and what the other interest groups in this room want?”

A near unanimous vote released the bill from committee, with Senate Minority Whip Greg Lavelle (R-Sharpley) the lone 'no' vote. Lavelle was also the only member of the committee to vote against the measure  in 2013.

A full debate in the Senate has yet to be scheduled.

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