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Lawmakers revive efforts to abolish the death penalty in Delaware, makes it out of committee

Delaware Legislative Hall
Delaware Public Media
Delaware Legislative Hall

Legislation to formally outlaw the death penalty in Delaware was voted out of committee on Wednesday.

State Rep. Sean Lynn (D-Dover) is sponsoring two bills — the first would remove the option of imposing capital punishment from Delaware Code entirely.

In 2016, the Delaware Supreme Court ruled the state’s capital sentencing statute unconstitutional based on a prior U.S. Supreme Court decision because it empowers judges, rather than jurors, to find the necessary facts to impose a death sentence.

Since this court decision, Delaware has been unable to impose the death penalty, but it remains codified in state law.

“After more than 50 years of an on-again, off-again relationship with the death penalty, I think that what history has taught us is that this is an experiment in constitutionality that we no longer can afford as a state," Lynn said.

The bill was released from the House Judiciary Committee on a party-line vote, but both Democratic and Republican lawmakers expressed their concerns.

Former Speaker of the House Peter and State Rep. Schwartzkopf (D-Rehoboth Beach) says he still believes in capital punishment in extreme cases, but feels the bill should have the opportunity to make it to the House of Representatives.

"I am still not going to support this legislation, but I will support and vote for it to get out of committee because I think it deserves a vote on the floor," Schwartzkopf said. “The hardest vote we have to take in this building is when you understand both sides and agree with both sides of the issue – and that’s where I am on this issue.”

State Rep. Sherry Dorsey Walker (D-Wilmington) signaled full support for the bill, saying for years she was in favor of the death penalty, but has since "evolved," citing religious reasons for her shift in opinion.

State Rep. Valerie Jones Giltner (R-Georgetown) did not vote to release the bill from committee, asking Lynn if he considered amending the law to make the parameters for enforcing capital punishment "more strict" instead of "wiping it out completely."

Lynn responded to Jones Giltner saying he understood her concerns, but he believes the state "can't constitutionally effectuate the death penalty."

State Sen. Eric Buckson (R-Dover South) filed legislation in May that would, in theory, make the death penalty constitutional again under the Sixth Amendment by requiring a jury to unanimously decide on death penalty cases. This bill has yet to have a committee hearing.

Lynn's second bill is the first leg of a state constitutional amendment that would permanently outlaw the death penalty. The bill requires a 2/3 majority vote in both chambers to pass, and a second leg will have to be approved in the next General Assembly.

The bill passed in the House Administration Committee, this time with unanimous bipartisan support.

Both pieces of legislation now await a floor vote in the House.

Before residing in Dover, Delaware, Sarah Petrowich moved around the country with her family, spending eight years in Fairbanks, Alaska, 10 years in Carbondale, Illinois and four years in Indianapolis, Indiana. She graduated from the University of Missouri in 2023 with a dual degree in Journalism and Political Science.