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Gov. Markell supports death penalty repeal

Delaware Public Media

After years of considering the issue, Gov. Jack Markell (D) says he will sign a bill repealing Delaware's death penalty should it come to his desk.

"The death penalty is an instrument of imperfect justice," said Markell, noting several people throughout the country have been exonerated in recent weeks, months and years.

Last month, the Federal Bureau of Investigation admitted that most of an elite team of forensic hair examiners had lied at trial in the 1980s and 1990s to benefit prosecutors in 32 death penalty cases. 14 of those people have since died in prison or have been executed.

That, Markell says, solidified his position to support repeal, calling it "extraordinary".

Sitting on the Board of Pardons, Markell has commuted one death penalty case out of the five he has heard.

During that time, the governor notes that he hasn't found any evidence that there may have been an unjustified execution in the state.

"We've got a very strong criminal justice system – prosecutors, judges and the like – and I think that's why nobody in Delaware has been exonerated, but even well-meaning people in a great system are not infallible."

After the Delaware Supreme Court ordered a retrial in the case of Jermaine Wright last year, a longtime death row inmate, a Superior Court judge ordered Wright be freed in February. 

Judge John A. Parkins Jr. found that police interrogated Wright while he was high on heroin and didn't properly read him his rights during an investigation surrounding a murder in Wilmington. That case is again being appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Over the past two years, Markell has stayed more toward the sidelines as efforts to abolish the death penalty stalled in the General Assembly, saying he was still weighing both sides.

Sen. Karen Peterson (D-Stanton), who has sponsored the legislation for the past two years, has said she wished Markell would take a firm position on the issue. Peterson received a call from Markell Thursday, saying it, "Came as a pleasant surprise," and that it will "add a lot of energy to the side of repeal."

"I've felt all along in conversations I've had with the governor that he doesn't believe the state should be in the business of killing people," she said.

Earlier this year, state senators approved bill repealing the death penalty 11-9 with one absent. 

The House Judiciary Committee – the same committee that buried a similar bill two years ago – will hold a hearing on the proposal May 13.

Markell's support is the most significant advancement of the issue in Delaware since it cleared the Senate, as many at Legislative Hall expected the bill to meet a similar fate, including Peterson.

Supporters may try to secure the 21 votes needed in the House to bring the bill out of committee.

But House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf (D-Rehoboth Beach), a former state trooper, opposes efforts to repeal the death penalty, as well as any plan to circumvent the committee process.

Peterson says many states that have undertaken similar efforts have taken eight to ten years to pass any legislation, saying, "It's going to pass eventually."

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