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Death penalty repeal fails in House

James Dawson/Delaware Public Media

House lawmakers resoundingly defeated a bill to repeal Delaware's death penalty Thursday night, but the issue may reappear in the coming weeks.

The actual vote count is closer – Rep. Andria Bennett (D-Dover) was absent recovering from surgery and will support the bill.  Rep. Kim Williams (D-Newport) only voted against it to reserve the right to bring it back though rarely used legislative rules.


Rep. Sean Lynn (D-Dover), the main House champion of the bill, says he’s confident it’ll pass eventually.


“This is going to happen. 20 states have already repealed the death penalty. While we’re deliberating, Kansas and Missouri are deliberating," said Lynn. "It’s unfortunately that we won’t be the first state to repeal in 2016, but it’s going to happen either by the courts or by the legislature.”


Not one lawmaker who supports the death penalty spoke out against it publicly.


Instead, Mary Cairns, a family friend of slain University of Delaware student Lindsey Bonistall, read a letter from her parents, urging legislators to keep capital punishment in place.


“Her killer deserves the death penalty for his brutal and heinous crime. Our family will only find peace and closure when Lindsey’s killer has been duly executed by the State of Delaware,” Cairns said.


Much of the more than hour-long discussion was among supporters, saying the death penalty represents a codified tool of racism that disproportionately affects minorities and isn’t 100 percent infallible.


Bryan Stevenson, a Delaware native and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, refuted the talking points of law enforcement groups.


Stevenson says police have a tough job, but that having the death penalty as an option doesn’t deter violence.


“That doesn’t mean that we don’t owe police officers all of our best services. But I don’t think we owe the death penalty and I actually don’t think it helps to protect our officers or keep them safe.”

The Delaware Supreme Court is currently reviewing the constitutionality of the state’s capital punishment system. That’s after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s system, parts of which are similar to Delaware’s.

Lawmakers can try to bring back the bill in March after they return from a break for budget hearings next month.

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