Delaware’s Death Penalty Should Go

After almost six years out of the limelight, Delaware’s death penalty system began grabbing headlines again when the state executed Robert Jackson in July of 2011 and Derrick Powell and Leslie Small were sentenced to death in the months following.

Shannon Johnson successfully petitioned the courts to drop his appeals and hasten his execution. Barring unforeseen developments, Delaware will execute again within the next two months, in our name.

If you oppose the death penalty, there were positive developments as well. The murder conviction and death sentence of Jermaine Wright were overturned due to withholding of evidence that supported his innocence, insufficient evidence to support his conviction and other factors. That ruling is under appeal. Steven Shelton and Jack Outten came off death row, after almost 20 years, when the testimony of the state’s key witness against them was shown to be tainted.

And for the first time in Delaware history, the clemency petition of a death row inmate was granted when Robert Gattis received clemency from Governor Jack Markell, after the Board of Pardons recommended clemency on a 4-1 vote. His death sentence was reduced to life in prison without parole.

For all the media coverage of these cases, there was little critical analysis of our capital punishment system. I suspect that most readers, on both sides of the issue, don’t realize that Delaware stands out among states with the death penalty for its extremely broad death penalty statute and frequent use of the death penalty despite its size.

In most states, the death penalty is reserved for the worst of the worst—murderers who abduct and kill children, homicides with multiple victims, or assassin/murder for hire cases. In Delaware, a defendant can receive a death sentence for driving a get-away car even if he didn’t pull the trigger and actually kill someone.

In all but three states, a jury makes the final decision regarding whether a death sentence is imposed and in most of these states the decision must be unanimous. In Delaware, Florida and Alabama, the jury makes a non-unanimous recommendation to a judge, who makes the final decision about life or death.

The bottom line? Over reliance on the death penalty diminishes the value of human life. A brutalization effect kicks in that research shows increases incidents of violence after an execution. Murder rates are higher in states with the death penalty. Racial bias taints the pursuit of justice. Tax dollars are wasted on a flawed system and not used to help victims of crime or to make our community safer. It’s time for a change.

Article written by DE Repeal adviser Kathleen MacRae. Kathleen joined the ACLU-DE as executive director in November 2010. She relocated to Delaware from New Mexico where she had worked for the ACLU-NM as development director. Before joining the ACLU, Kathleen was the executive director of the New Mexico Coalition to Repeal the Death Penalty. There she led the campaign that won passage of repeal legislation in the NM House of Representatives for the first time in 2005. 

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