Momentum is building in Delaware behind a death penalty repeal bill that is scheduled to be considered on the house floor on Thursday January 28th. As the institution of capital punishment continues to come under harsh criticism and decline in public support. In their deliberations Thursday, lawmakers will consider a capital punishment system burdened with legal and moral problems.
Since 1976, Delaware has executed 16 people. Twenty-eight year old Shannon Johnson was the last person executed in Delaware in 2012. Another 17 people sit on the state’s death row. Delaware has the third highest execution rate per capita. A recent Supreme Court decision striking down provisions of a Florida death sentencing scheme similar to that in Delaware raises additional questions about Delaware’s current death penalty procedures. Delaware, Alabama, and Florida constitute a small minority of states that allow a judge to sentence a defendant to death and overrule the recommendation of a jury. A 2012 Cornell study authored by Blume et al. offered a sharp indictment of Delaware’s death penalty system. The study found that judge sentencing directly resulted in an increased number of death sentences in Delaware. The authors noted that even relative to the nation’s top executioners, Delaware’s death penalty is particularly influenced by race. They found that black defendants who kill white victims are more than six times as likely to receive the death penalty than black defendants who kill black victims.
Delaware’s death penalty, like elsewhere in the nation, is broken. Legal challenges and racial bias plague the system, while it fails to achieve any of its objectives. It fails to deter crime, enhance public safety, or uphold the values we expect from our judicial system. It destroys, it doesn’t heal, and denies the fundamental truth that applies to everyone of us: redemption, grace and healing is possible. The bill under consideration in Delaware offers lawmakers the chance to align the state’s laws with the state's values, creating a justice system that works for the people.