A bill to abolish Delaware's death penalty failed to clear a House committee Wednesday after winning narrow passage in the Senate, the same fate suffered by similar legislation two years ago.
After a two-and-a-half hour hearing highlighted by public comment for and against the measure, members of the House Judiciary Committee voted 6-to-5 not to send the bill to the full House.
Rep. Sean Lynn, D-Dover, chief House sponsor of the legislation, which is strongly opposed by the law enforcement community, conceded in advance that it probably would not clear the committee.
Lynn said before the vote that he plans to take the politically risky option of trying to suspend rules and bring the bill straight to the floor, perhaps as early as Thursday. It was not immediately clear Wednesday whether he planned to follow through with that strategy.
Supporters of the bill argued that the death penalty is racially unfair, costly, morally wrong and ineffective as a deterrent to crime.
"It is murder, carried out in the name of the state of Delaware. ... It is done in our name," said Molly Keogh, vice president of Delaware Citizens Opposed to the Death Penalty.
Opponents, including several people whose loved ones were murder victims, argued that execution is a justifiable form of punishment for first-degree murder.
"Let the punishment fit the crime," Mark Bonistall said after describing in a faltering voice how his daughter Lindsey, a University of Delaware student, was brutally, beaten, raped and strangled in 2005 by James Cooke, one of 15 killers awaiting execution on Delaware's death row.
Tina Leager recounted how her husband, Kenneth Warren, was shot to death in front of her and their infant son during a 1996 home invasion by Ralph Swan and Adam Norcross, who are also on death row.
"They will be put to sleep, not murdered in front of their family," Leager said.
But Kathleen MacRae, director of the Delaware chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the death penalty amounts to "cruel and unusual punishment."
"The fact is that the death penalty is broken beyond repair," MacRae said. "It is a failed public policy that is implemented by human beings that make mistakes. We cannot take the risk of executing an innocent person."
But opponents said there is no evidence that an innocent person has ever been executed in Delaware.
Lewes police Chief Jeffrey Horvath, a vice chairman of the Delaware Police Chiefs' Council, said the death penalty is reserved for the worst of crimes and is an effective prosecution tool.
"Are we saying our attorney general is a racist and he unfairly applies the death penalty?" Horvath asked. "I know that's not true."