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House committee blocks death penalty repeal

Delaware Public Media

The House Judiciary Committee voted down a bill that would repeal Delaware’s death penalty 6-5 Wednesday after a nearly three hour hearing.

The vote didn’t change dramatically from when the same committee killed a similar bill two years ago, despite colleagues not on the committee urging them to send it to the full House.

“I am disappointed that there’s an overarching kind of transparency and government issue here where bills ought not to be killed in committee that merit discussion and are technically sound on their face,” said Rep. Sean Lynn (D-Dover), one of the chief sponsors, noting it’s an issue that warrants debate among all elected officials, not just the 11-member committee.

Only Rep. Harvey Kenton (R-Milford) spoke out against the bill before taking a vote. Reps. John Mitchell Jr. (D-Elsmere) and Trey Paradee (D-Dover) were the two Democrats to vote against it.

Law enforcement, clergy, supporters and opponents packed the gallery and House Chamber, with dozens of speakers – most in favor of repeal.

Those who have had family members killed had split opinions.

Mark Bonistall, father of murdered University of Delaware student Lindsey Bonistall, said “Let the punishment fit the crime,” noting that she had been raped, strangled and her body set ablaze in an effort to hide the crime.

But Stewart Dotts, a juror who voted to sentence Bonistall’s killer to death, says he has changed his views.

“I became a killer that day. I will always remember that fateful moment when I wrote ‘death’ on a little tiny slip of paper. I was never the same again," Dotts said.

"I submit that those with no personal experience in this process fail to recognize the inconceivable burden you place on people.”

Tina Leager’s husband was killed in front of her and their infant son in 1996 by two home invaders. 

“These two men are currently on death row. They’re allowed to visit with their father. My son is not. They get three meals a day and, at times, as a single mom on a state employee’s salary, we did not. They will be put to sleep, not murdered, in front of their family. The justice for me, my son and their father and the hundreds of people who decided their fate is to die,” Leager said.

Others, like Kristen Froehlich, say that she doesn’t want state-sanctioned executions to be performed in her name – even for her brother’s killer.

Many seeking to eliminate capital punishment cited a 2012 Cornell University study that shows a stark racial disparity among those who are sentenced to death.

It found black people were more likely to receive the death penalty if they killed a white victim than if they had killed another black person. White people who killed a black victim, however, were more likely to receive a life sentence according to the study.

Lewes Police Chief Jeffrey Horvath, who represented the Police Chief’s Council, took exception to the notion that Delaware’s judicial system might not be colorblind.

“Why are we looking at the race of the offender or the victim? Why aren’t we looking at the individual case  that applies for the death penalty. They have to meet a certain amount of criteria to be a death penalty case. Are we saying our attorney general is a racist and he unfairly applies the death penalty?”

In the past, law enforcement had offered up amendments to the bill that would’ve kept capital punishment in state code if someone kills a police officer or corrections officer.

A representative from the Delaware State Police said they were no longer interested in that compromise, which those sponsoring the bill say they were never interested in regardless.

Others also cited figures that the cost of executing someone exceeds those of holding someone in prison for life.

“In reality, capital punishment is a bloated government program that has bogged down law enforcement, delayed justice for victim’s families and devoured millions of crime-fighting dollars that could save lives and protect the public,” said Lynn, noting that Delaware spends nearly $3 million per year on capital cases.

Earlier in the day, supporters gathered outside of Legislative Hall – including Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, a co-founder of The Roots.

Lynn says he will move to suspend House rules to yank the bill to the full floor for a vote as early as Thursday.

Already passed in the state Senate earlier this year, Lynn needs 21 votes to do so amid opposition from House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf (D-Rehoboth Beach).

Should the House pass it, Gov. Jack Markell (D) has said he will sign it into law.

That nod from Markell, after two years of considering the issue, has given supporters hope as they view the repeal effort as a long-term issue.

In past interviews, Sen. Karen Peterson (D-Stanton), who has initiated all recent repeal efforts, doesn’t expect her side to prevail even in the next few years.

She says most movements to abolish capital punishments in states across the country have taken eight to ten years to be implemented.

Should Lynn get the needed votes, Delaware would become the 18th state to repeal the death penalty, joining four other states that have done so in the past six years.

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