Lawmakers in Delaware allowed a bill to repeal the death penalty to get a full debate on the House floor for the first time. The bill had been stuck in the House Judiciary Committee for the last several years.
The growing coalition in Delaware is fired up at having broken through the logjam. Though the bill did not pass, the fight is not over. In fact, there is still a chance the bill will have another day on the House floor in 2016.
Over the last several months, a groundswell of activity from Delaware’s African American community has changed the conversation about that death penalty. There is more recognition than ever that racial justice in Delaware means the death penalty has to go.
During last week’s debate over the death penalty repeal bill, it was clear that this message has reached legislators. Almost every repeal supporter who spoke on the floor noted the need to meaningfully address the racial disparities that undermine the integrity of the entire criminal justice system by getting rid of the death penalty.
Bryan Stevenson, the Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, himself a Delaware native, was also invited on the House floor to speak in favor of repeal. He confirmed that repeal is a major civil rights issue, noting that Delaware cases in which a victim is white are more likely to result in a death sentence.
“These disparities create this fear, this concern that the lives of some people matter less than others,” Stevenson said in a press conference before the debate.
Meanwhile, the Delaware courts are also weighing in. During the debate, lawmakers learned that the Delaware Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to Delaware’s death penalty statute based on two recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions. And just a few days later on Monday, a Superior Court Judge suspended all 39 pending capital cases until the ruling from the State Supreme Court.
The action is not isolated to Delaware. Momentum for repeal swept through a number of states this week.
On the same day as the floor vote in Delaware, a group of 17 Kansas legislators from both sides of the aisle officially launched the repeal campaign at a Capitol press conference. Joining the legislators was Floyd Bledsoe, who just a few weeks ago was released from prison after being exonerated of a murder he did not commit. “We must stop the death penalty today,” he said. “Tomorrow it might be too late for one person.”
Also on that same day, lawmakers in New Hampshire heard testimony from a death row exoneree, clergy, law enforcement, a former FBI Special Agent, a former New Hampshire Attorney General, a former New Hampshire Supreme Court Justice, several murder victim family members, and more. More than 20 people spoke in favor of a bill to suspend executions.
In Missouri, a legislative committee passed a Republican-lead repeal bill to the Senate Floor. A week later, an investigation revealed that the corrections department has been handing cash-stuffed envelopes to consultants after executions, likely in violation of tax law. When lawmakers responded to the investigation, some state officials said that obeying tax law would mean they’d have to end the death penalty.
And in Florida, executions are officially on hold while lawmakers grapple with the implications of last month’s Supreme Court ruling that invalidated the state’s death penalty scheme. It seems there is no clear path forward, with experts offering different options for ways to “fix” the law, and no legislation sure to pass.