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Positions vary on latest proposal to reinstate death penalty

Some state legislators are pushing to reinstate a “streamlined” version of the death penalty in Delaware. Support is mixed among state officials.


Delaware’s Supreme Court struck down the state’s death penalty in 2016 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a similar statute in Florida, letting judges override a jury’s recommendation on a death sentence, unconstitutional. 

But State House Minority Leader Danny Short (R-Seaford) plans to introduce a bill reinstating capital punishment in the First State.

It addresses the constitutional issue by requiring a unanimous jury to determine if the aggravating circumstances outweigh any mitigating factors. 

It also proposes trimming the list of more than 20 aggravating circumstances under which capital punishment could previously be sought for first-degree murder to just four: a repeat offense; mass murder, of three or more people in a public place; a hate crime; or a horribly inhumane murder, such as involving torture. 

A similar effortto reinstate the death penalty last year, which would have preserved more aggravating circumstances, stalled in committee. Another effortin 2017 failed. 

Sen. Dave Wilson (R-Lincoln) backs the new bill. He says it would act as a deterrent. 

“When we look at these crimes and they’re continuing to happen, it tells me that we’re not doing anything to deter it,” he said. 

Department of Correction Commissioner Claire DeMatteis is also among the legislation's supporters. She cites the case of Correctional Officer Lt. Steven Floyd, who proponents of the bill argue was killedin a ‘horribly inhumane’ way during the 2017 riot at a correctional center near Smyrna. 

“The offender who was convictedof killing Lt. Floyd got two additional life sentences when he’s already serving a life sentence. That’s not punishment,” she said. “Punishment for that defendent should have been the death penalty.”

DeMatteis also supports the death penalty in the case of those convicted of killing a law enforcement officer, which the draft bill does not cover. 

Gov. John Carney maintains he would consider capital punishment legislation that applied only in the case of murder of a law enforcement officer. 

“In some cases, especially in our prisons, it may be the only deterrent to murder,” said the Governor’s spokesman, Jonathan Starkey, in an email. “I don’t think this legislation meets that test.”

State Attorney General Kathy Jennings opposes the death penalty in all cases. 

"There is no evidence that the death penalty is any more of a deterrent to murder, any more an enhancement of public safety, or any more a restoration of justice than a life sentence,” she said in a statement. “But there is ample evidence nationally that there is bias in the use of capital punishment, that execution costs taxpayers more than life sentences, and that as long as the state sanctions execution there will always exist the possibility, however remote, that we might take an innocent life which we cannot give back.”


She added there is no circumstance in which she would apply the death penalty.

Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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