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Bill to abolish Delaware death penalty clears Senate committee in renewed repeal effort

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DOVER, Delaware — A bill to abolish Delaware's death penalty cleared its first legislative hurdle Wednesday, with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee releasing it for debate and a vote by the full Senate.

The legislation, which was the subject of an hour-long hearing, mirrors a bill that passed the Senate in 2013 by only one vote before dying in a House committee.

The legislation would remove execution as a possible punishment for first-degree murder, leaving life in prison without the possibility of parole as the only sentence.

The bill would not apply to the 15 inmates currently on Delaware's death row, who would still be subject to execution.

Chief sponsor Sen. Karen Peterson, D-Stanton, who also led the failed repeal effort two years ago, said opponents believe that the death penalty is arbitrary, discriminatory against minorities, costly to taxpayers and ineffective as a deterrent to crime.

"We keep killing people to teach them that it is wrong to kill people," Peterson said. "It's not working."

Peterson specifically rejected arguments from opponents of the legislation that the death penalty serves as a deterrent to attacks on law enforcement officers and prison guards.

Of the 13 people who signed up to speak on the measure, 12 were supporters of the repeal effort, including clerics representing several Christian and Jewish congregations in Delaware.

Brendan O'Neill, head of the state public defender's office, said death penalty cases are costly to taxpayers, to the tune of $2.6 million in defense costs in fiscal 2014.

"If we pass this bill, we won't have all of these expenses," O'Neill said, noting that death penalty cases require two defense trial attorneys, expert testimony on mitigating circumstances as arguments against imposing a death sentence, and costly and lengthy appeals.

Lewes Police Chief Jeffrey Horvath, representing the Delaware Police Chiefs Council, was the only person to speak against the bill. Horvath suggested that some of the statistics used by death penalty opponents in support of the repeal effort, including the number of death row inmates who have been "exonerated," are false or misleading.

"Being removed from the death penalty does not equate to innocence," Horvath noted, saying many former death row inmates are serving life in prison.

He also said cost should not be a factor in the argument over capital punishment.

"The death penalty is reserved for the most shocking crimes against real people. ... These are not minimal crimes, and saving money should not be the priority for getting rid of the death penalty."

Attorney General Matt Denn says he is not opposed to capital punishment in appropriate cases, but that state law should be changed to require a unanimous jury recommendation before a judge can impose a death sentence.

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