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House committee signs off on death penalty bill

Delaware Public Media

The entire House will get its say on whether to reinstate Delaware’s death penalty.

A House committee voted 7-4 Wednesday to send the bill to the full floor. Rep. Melanie George Smith (D-Bear), who voted to repeal capital punishment last year, voted to release it.

The Delaware Supreme Court found the state’s death penalty law unconstitutional last year and commuted the sentences of the 12 men on death row to life in prison.

It was a familiar scene in the chamber after two previous attempts to erase the state’s death penalty failed in 2013 and 2016.

But where chairs and benches in the gallery and on the floor were once packed in the past, empty seats

Unitarians from across Delaware took the place of rabbis, priests and pastors that had tried in vain to repeal capital punishment.

Rev. Greg Chute of Dover says such an embrace of the death sentence fosters a sense of brutality in society.

“Acting with violence in response to violence normalizes violence as a legitimate social response. It sends a message that it is okay to kill, that killing is somehow justified,” Chute said.

Others pointed out that minorities are disproportionately affected by the death penalty – both in Delaware and across the country – and that the system cannot guarantee an innocent person won’t be executed.

Law enforcement lobbying groups fought back on a day where hundreds gathered in Dover to mourn the loss of fallen officers – including the recent deaths of state trooper Steven Ballard and correctional officer Steven Floyd.

“If you commit an violent crime, if you commit an act of violence, there should be a price to pay for that,” said Fred Calhoun, president of the Delaware Fraternal Order of Police.

Rep. Steve Smyk (R-Milton), a former cop and sponsor of the bill, pointed to these recent deaths, arguing the death penalty could deter such crimes.

“Legislators see that they do not want to put a weight on their shoulders of another homicide, another execution and this is one way to say that they did something to at least prevent it,” Smyk said.

It’s unclear whether Delaware has an up-to-date stockpile of lethal injection drugs and Smyk wouldn’t comment on whether he’d support adding a new form of execution to state law.

Earlier this week, an architect of the most recent repeal effort, Rep. Sean Lynn (D-Dover), filed a bill that would strip the Department of Correction’s ability to execute anyone.

It also forbids them from using any drugs commonly used in lethal injections, or turn to hanging as a method of execution – eliminating the only two options currently outlined in state law.

Gov. John Carney (D) has not taken a public position on Smyk’s bill, but says he’d consider signing a proposal reserving the death penalty for those who kill police officers or prison guards.

That’s after an October debate in which Carney said he’d “probably” veto a bill reinstating capital punishment.

The bill is on the House agenda for Thursday, but that's no guarantee it will run. 

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