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Death penalty repeal passes Delaware's state Senate

Delaware Public Media

The push to repeal Delaware’s death penalty has won a victory again in the Senate, but still faces poor odds in the House.

The margin was nearly identical to the Senate vote a similar bill in 2013. It passed this time again by one vote, 11-9, with Senate Minority Whip Greg Lavelle (R-Sharpley) absent, though he previously voted against measure.

Debate surrounding the issue was less intense that it was two years ago and also shorter. It lasted about an hour.

With its future uncertain in the House, Gov. Jack Markell (D) has also kept mum with his position.

The bill’s prime sponsor, Sen. Karen Peterson (D-Stanton), says she doesn’t know if Markell would sign the legislation. In 2013, then Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley heavily backed a repeal measure in his state that eventually passed.

“We tried to encourage our governor to do the same and that is to be out front on it and take the lead, but he’s not comfortable with that,” Peterson said.

Sen. Dave Lawson (R-Marydel), a former state trooper, was the most adamant in keeping the death penalty in place during his floor speech.

Lawson says he has seen several violent acts during his time on the force and that he believes some crimes just deserve capital punishment.

Delaware was the second state in the country to repeal capital punishment in 1958. Soon after, a grisly double murder spurred the General Assembly to reinstate it.

“Is this what we want to repeat? Is this where we want to go? Because it will happen, I guarantee you," said Lawson. "I’ve seen enough vile things in my life. I don’t need to see any more.”

Several amendments were offered, many of which would’ve expanded the number of aggravating factors that the state could use to prosecute capital crimes, but they all failed.

Peterson saved most of her arguments until just before the final vote was taken.

She says those calling for retribution for the families of victims of violent crimes have the same attitude that has contributed to the extraordinary violence in Delaware’s largest city.

“Isn’t that the same mentality that’s driving the murder rate in the City of Wilmington? Murder Town USA? You diss me or one of mine and I’m going to kill you? I’ll teach you to disrespect me? And yet, that’s the very basis for the opposition to this bill.”

Two votes swapped from the previous debate.

Senate Majority Leader David McBride (D-Hawks Nest) originally voted against the measure, but now says that he doesn’t think the death penalty is an equal punishment for crimes committed.

“There is no societal value in preserving a disproven form of punishment that no longer serves the cause of justice in Delaware,” McBride said.

Sen. Robert Marshall withdrew his support, saying he wanted an assurance that those sentenced to life without parole would spend 23 hours a day in their cells.

The bill now goes before the House Judiciary Committee that previously stifled it.

Lawmakers say they’ll try to petition the bill out of committee to supersede their ruling, which House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf opposes.

But it may be their only shot at getting a full floor vote on such a controversial issue.

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