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Lawmakers seek to reinstate death penalty in Delaware

Delaware Public Media

A bill to revive Delaware's death penalty will return this week backed by a bipartisan group of legislators with ties to law enforcement.

Under the proposal, jurors must unanimously find aggravating factors in each case to trigger the death penalty. That hearing occurs after a jury finds a defendant guilty of first degree murder.

The judge must also agree with the jury's findings, or he or she could downgrade the sentence to life in prison.

The state Supreme Court said Delaware's capital punishment law was unconstitutional in August because of its reliance on a judge to ultimately decide whether or not to implement a death sentence instead of a jury.

Justices based their decision on a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court case that overturned Florida's death penalty statute because of a similar set-up.

State Rep. Steve Smyk (R-Milton), a former state trooper, says the way the law had been previously written was “wrong.”

“I don’t see where that’s correct at all, so I think [this change] is long overdue,” Smyk said.

He notes it’s a tool for prosecutors to use that deters would-be criminals, as well as those already locked up in state prisons.

Law enforcement lobbying groups were critical in opposing past efforts to roll back Delaware's capital punishment system.

Rep. Larry Mitchell (D-Elsmere), another former police officer, had once bottled up a bill to repeal the death penalty in a House committee, but released it to the floor last year despite opposing the measure.

Mitchell voted against it and now wants to see death row reinstated.

“This legislation sets a higher standard, which reserves the punishment for only the most extreme cases,” he said in a statement.

A House Democratic Party spokesman declined to make Mitchell or another of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. William Carson (D-Smyrna), available for interviews.

Attempts to contact them were unsuccessful.

During a gubernatorial debate in October, Gov. John Carney (D) said he would "probably" veto such a bill.

But in a statement released Monday, Carney says, "I wouldn't rule out, however, supporting a death penalty that applied only to those convicted of killing a member of law enforcement. In some cases – specifically behind prison walls – capital punishment may be our only deterrent to murder."

Smyk dismissed that notion, though.

"They don't feel that their life is any more precious than the victims that they serve everyday. So you're not going to find that to be a popular thought with those who it's intended to protect more than those who they are protecting," he said.

In December, Delaware's highest court commuted the sentences of the 12 men on death row to life in prison.

The court battles ended a multi-year standoff in the General Assembly.

State senators voted to repeal capital punishment in 2013 and 2015 by one vote, only to have it blocked in the House after hours of emotional testimony from supporters and opponents.

Rep. Paul Baumbach (D-Newark), who backed efforts to repeal capital punishment, says the new bill isn’t a surprise.

But he says he hopes the recent death of a correctional officer during a 19-hour standoff at Delaware’s largest prison won’t be used as a catalyst to bring back death row.

“What I’m hoping the General Assembly and the governor focus on is, is this the right move or not? Is this effective, is this just, is this fair and is this the right move for Delaware?”

In the past, Brendan O’Neill, Delaware’s Chief Public Defender, has said his office has spent millions of dollars on such cases that are nearly always marked by a lengthy appeals process.

He notes a death sentence is not a deterrent, is applied in a racially discriminatory manner and error prone.

“Delaware should not once again put itself on the wrong side of history. There are no do-overs when it comes to the death penalty,” O’Neill said in a statement.

The legislation will be filed sometime this week.

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