Delaware Senate debates death penalty
Published: Monday, April 8, 2013
Updated: Monday, April 8, 2013 22:04
The Delaware Senate has passed the Senate Bill 19 to repeal the death penalty with a vote of 11 to 10. If the bill passes into law, it would annul the state of Delaware’s death penalty and make Delaware the 18th state to permanently do away with capital punishment.
Yet, the bill has one more vote to go through, in addition to the vote held on Mar. 26, before the death penalty would be completely extinguished in Delaware—one vote by the Delaware House of Representatives.
Sen. Karen Peterson (D-Del.), the chief sponsor of Senate Bill 19, said she believes Delawareans ultimately want to abolish the state’s death penalty. She said the United States needs to join the modern era and begin to rethink its stance on capital punishment.
“We’re one of the last civilized nations in the world to still use the death penalty,” Peterson said.
One of the biggest problems with the death penalty is the possibility of wrongly executing an innocent person, she said. A human life is far too valuable to jeopardize in the court of law, she said.
Peterson said the criminal justice system has made too many mistakes in the past as evidenced by the 142 people who were on death row and have now been exonerated. She said the state cannot take the risk to execute innocent people.
“Most of the cases that are overturned are not based on DNA evidence because most of these crime scenes don’t have DNA,” Peterson said. “People have the idea that every crime is like CSI—there is always DNA, there is always some forensic evidence, but that’s not the case.”
Peterson said many wrongfully imprisoned people are convicted in capital cases based on the strength of testimonies. She believes the death penalty is too severe a punishment to depend solely upon the possibly unreliable evidence of first-hand accounts.
“Most of these people are convicted based on witness statements,” Peterson said. “Three people see something happen, and you get three different stories. By the time the story gets back to you don’t recognize it, but we put people to death based on that kind of testimony.”
Deputy Attorney General Steven Wood served as the Attorney General’s representative during floor debates to inform the senate that the Attorney General opposed the repeal of the death penalty in Delaware.
“The Attorney General believes that the death penalty should be imposed rarely, fairly and judiciously, and he believes that Delaware’s existing death penalty statute accomplishes those purposes,” Wood said.
Under Delaware law the death penalty is appropriate only if the jury finds unanimously certain factual circumstances have been revealed about the criminal, the crime or the victim, he said.
Examples where the death penalty may be used appropriately are cases including multiple murders, murders committed by inmates who have escaped from prison, the murder of a witness in a case or the killing of a victim in a rape or kidnapping, according to Wood.
Wood said each state is granted the right by the Constitution of the United States to administer its own criminal justice system, and, because of this, the effectiveness of capital punishment nationwide should not be taken into account.
“When judging the use of the death penalty in Delaware it’s important to use statistics that relate only to Delaware in the modern era,” Wood said. “It makes no sense to judge the operation of the death penalty in the 21st century in Delaware by examining what happened in another state 30 years ago.”
Wood said the Attorney General and his staff intend to continue to work with Delawareans who believe the state should continue to provide the death penalty as a rarely used option in criminal cases.
Philosophy professor Richard Hanley said he is happy the Delaware government is working toward repealing the death penalty and that it is only a matter of time until other states followed suit. He said although it is a complicated issue, our morality should not be determined by the immorality of others.
Hanley said the United States’ peculiar state-level criminal justice systems do not make the transition away from capital punishment easy while many other nations simply ban the death penalty by way of federal legislation. He said he hopes the Supreme Court of the United States will pursue better Constitutional interpretation as a means of finding the death penalty a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which protects citizens from the imposition of cruel and unusual punishment.
“It is uncivilized,” Hanley said. “Some criminals may deserve the death penalty, but it does not follow that we should give it to them. Our actions need not be dictated to us by the actions of criminals, hence we are not required to rape rapists, torture torturers or execute murderers.”