POLITICS

Delaware House panel tables death penalty repeal bill

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Politics,Associated Press,Delaware

DOVER, Del. (AP) -- Efforts to abolish capital punishment in Delaware hit a roadblock Tuesday when a House committee voted to table a bill repealing the death penalty.

Tuesday's vote in the Judiciary Committee came after its meeting last week ended in confusion, with majority Democrats acknowledging that the bill did not have enough votes to get out of committee.

On Tuesday, a motion by chief House sponsor Rep. Darryl Scott, D-Dover, to release the bill for consideration by the full House failed. Committee members then approved a motion by opponents to table the measure.

Scott said afterward that he would work to persuade fellow House members to suspend the rules and bring the bill to the floor, circumventing the committee process.

"The bottom line is, we're not going away," said Kathleen MacRae, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware.

The repeal bill barely cleared the Senate in March on an 11-10 vote, even after chief sponsor Sen. Karen Peterson removed a provision that would have spared the lives of 17 inmates already awaiting execution in Delaware.

Even if House lawmakers pass the bill, it's unclear whether it will ever become law. Gov. Jack Markell has refused to say where he stands on the issue.

"For me, there's a lot of tension in terms of the pros and cons, and I've got to sort all that out," said Markell, a Democrat.

But Attorney General Beau Biden, along with virtually the entire law enforcement community in Delaware, opposes the repeal effort.

"Personally, I think there are certain crimes in which the death penalty is the appropriate punishment," said Biden, adding that the death sentence given James Cooke Jr. for the 2005 rape and murder of University of Delaware student Lindsay Bonistall is one such case. "This is something I've thought a lot about."

Biden, who has not talked to Markell about the proposed repeal, said politics has not played a role in his position.

"I think the movement of the public is for repealing the death penalty," Biden noted. "There's a lot of effort nationally, state by state."

Biden, who is Catholic, also said he is able to separate his faith from his role as attorney general, sworn to uphold the laws of Delaware.

"I don't really talk about my faith as it applies to any given issue," he said.

The debate over repealing the death penalty has brought passionate arguments from both sides, with pleas for justice from the families of Delaware murder victims countered by arguments from representatives of national advocacy groups that the death penalty is unfair and ineffective as a deterrent to crime.

In Delaware, the decision to seek the death penalty starts with trial prosecutors seeking approval from a review committee consisting of the three county prosecutors, the chief state prosecutor, and the head of the criminal appeals unit. The committee gives its recommendation to the chief deputy attorney general, who then makes a recommendation to the attorney general.

As attorney general, Biden makes the ultimate decision on whether prosecutors will seek the death penalty in a murder case.

"There's no more significant thing I do as attorney general," he said, noting that death penalty cases involve far more than taking away a convicted criminal's liberty.

House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, a former state trooper, said he has confidence in the application of Delaware's death penalty.

"I firmly believe that in Delaware, if you get the death penalty, you've earned it," said Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth. "We have a standard of proof that is very tough in our state."

Schwartzkopf said other states, such as Texas, Georgia and Florida, have put people on death row solely on the basis of eyewitness testimony, which he said is "some of the most unreliable testimony you can get."

But just a few weeks ago, Biden's office dropped charges against an accused killer in a capital murder case based largely on the testimony of two eyewitnesses -- one a man unable to speak or write coherently because of a brain injury, and the other a convicted felon who was wounded in the 2011 shooting. Prosecutors dropped the case against Medford Holmes, whose first trial on charges of shooting a Wilmington man confined to a wheelchair resulted in a hung jury, after the convicted felon, Abdullah Talib-Din, changed his story. Talib-Din is now facing perjury charges.

"The system worked," Schwartzkopf said when asked about the Holmes case.

Opponents of repealing Delaware's death penalty are not swayed by Peterson's decision to remove the provision sparing the lives of current death row inmates, saying it gives false hope to families of murder victims and will simply lead to court challenges by killers already facing execution.

"If this bill passes and is signed into law, you're going to see 17 attorneys file legal briefs for review of sentencing, and all those will be converted back to life," Schwartzkopf said. "I know how the justice system works, and they're not going to stand by and allow a two-tier system."

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