As Delaware Debates Death Penalty Repeal, Momentum for the Movement Grows

Democrats and Republicans are increasingly working together to end capital punishment.
(Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Jan 28, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

“The question we have to ask is not ‘Do people deserve to die for the crimes they’ve committed?’,” lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson said Thursday morning in front of the Delaware Legislative Hall. “The question we have to ask is. ‘Do we deserve to kill?’ We really can free ourselves in this state to do some amazing things if we put the death penalty behind us.”

Stevenson, a Delaware native, was joined by a crowd of anti–death penalty supporters. The group awaited an afternoon vote by the state house of representatives that could make Delaware the 20th state to repeal capital punishment. The bill had been blocked in the house judiciary committee for the second time in two years after passing the senate in April, but Rep. Larry Mitchell, the Democrat who chairs the committee and who opposes the bill, relented and released it for a full hearing. Mitchell told Delaware Online that he believed the issue deserved a hearing in spite of his opposition.

In May, Gov. Jack Markell said he wouldn’t hesitate to sign the bill into law if it passed, describing the death penalty as an “instrument of imperfect justice,” according to Delaware Online. The state’s supreme court has overturned three death row convictions in the past two years, citing prosecutorial misconduct and failures by state-appointed defense counsel.

Delaware’s progress toward abolishment reflects a broader national shift away from capital punishment. Since 1996, public support for the death penalty in the U.S. has fallen by 20 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. As that support has fallen, so have the number of new death sentences. In 1994, three hundred new death sentences were assigned, and in 2013 the number of new sentences dropped to 83.

“It’s not like people are swimming against the tide,” Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, told TakePart. “What’s happening [in Delaware] is following the course of what’s happening in other states.”

In Kansas on Thursday, a group of bipartisan legislators and activists gathered at the state capitol to rally for repeal legislation introduced on Jan. 22. Floyd Bledsoe, exonerated after spending 16 years in a Kansas prison for a murder he didn’t commit, told the crowd that the state’s death penalty must end because “tomorrow it might be too late for one person.”

The Kansas bill boasts 10 Republican and six Democratic sponsors, exemplifying the growing bipartisan movement to abolish capital punishment. That across-the-aisle alliance was on display last May in conservative Nebraska, where political foes set aside differences and voted to override the governor’s veto of a successful repeal bill.

“We’re transcending these left-right boxes that we’ve put ourselves in,” said Rust-Tierney. “The force behind the conservative and progressive alliance is a cautious view of government and a moral conviction that everybody should retain the opportunity for redemption and grace, even as they are held accountable.”

Even in Missouri—a state that executes an average of one person per month, more than any other state—a Republican-led repeal effort is under way. On Monday, a bill sponsored by state Sen. Paul Wieland became the first repeal legislation to move to the senate floor, according to The Missouri Times. Wieland attributed his anti–death penalty stance to his staunch pro-life views, a common refrain among conservative death penalty abolitionists. The Missouri Catholic Conference, the NAACP, and Missouri Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty are all backing Wieland’s bill.

“The reality is that everywhere the death penalty is on the books and where it’s in play, it’s coming under greater scrutiny,” said Rust-Tierney. “Each time a state like Delaware or Kansas takes these steps, it prompts lawmakers elsewhere to say, ‘Wait a minute. The system is crumbling, and people are noticing.’ ”