Posted: March 27, 2013
A CAPITAL DEBATE
By Celia Cohen
There is hardly ever a debate in the Delaware General Assembly like the one Tuesday in the Senate on capital punishment.
It was riveting. In a place usually as itchy as a kindergarten, with people coming and going and gossiping on the side, it was utterly attentive and respectful for more than two hours of private-reflection-turned-public on whether the state should repeal the death penalty.
The senators were called upon to vote their conscience, and for once, the thought of politicians' conscience did not seem like much of an oxymoron.
"People of good conscience can disagree on this issue," said Greg Lavelle, the Senate's Republican minority whip.
"This is probably the most difficult bill that I've had to vote on since I was a senator," said Bob Venables, a Democratic senator since 1988.
In the end the repeal passed by the thinnest of margins at 11-10 and now moves on to its next test in the House of Representatives.
The voting was so personal, the common political divisions were blurry, the ones that typically split Democrats and Republicans, upstate and downstate, sometimes even men and women.
In the 21-member chamber, which the Democrats control by 14-7, the "yes" votes on Senate Bill 19 came from eight Democrats and three Republicans, from eight upstaters and three downstaters, from seven men and four women, and the "no" votes were cast by five Democrats and five Republicans, by four upstaters and six downstaters, by eight men and two women.
Church met state on this day of debate.
It was preceded, entirely coincidentally, by a visit from the Delaware State University choir, its blue-robed members ringing the chamber to sing spirituals, including one with lyrics asking hauntingly, "Who will be a witness for my Lord?"
It ended as Karen Peterson, the Democratic senator who was the prime sponsor for repeal, invoked Holy Week and the image of Pontius Pilate washing his hands of the most consequential public execution in human history.
The roll call was another improbable triumph for Peterson, a 10-year legislator from Stanton. Without any political muscle behind her, but simply with her own sense of right and wrong, she has made massive transformations.
More than any other legislator, Peterson was responsible for opening up the General Assembly by subjecting it to the Freedom of Information Act, for lifting the statute of limitations to hold the Catholic Church accountable for the sex abuse scandal, and for uprooting Tony DeLuca, the rough-tough president pro tem who lost his seat last year in a Democratic primary.
Now she has the legislature confronting one of the most elemental of decisions, a policy on which there is no middle ground, a choice that when made has been known to end political careers.
Peterson defused much of the intensity against the bill with an amendment that would allow the executions to proceed for 17 inmates currently on death row.
The outcome was a loss for Beau Biden, the Democratic attorney general, as well as for an array of police organizations that are rarely rebuffed inside Legislative Hall in Dover. While Biden was not in the chamber, his office was represented by Kathleen Jennings and Steve Wood, two of the state's most accomplished prosecutors.
"We support the law as it is. We believe the law deserves to be intact in the state of Delaware for the most heinous of criminal acts," Jennings told the Senate.
The debate was a look back at Delaware's criminal history and some of the most monstrous murders in memory.
It went back as far as a 1961 double murder of Lorenzo and Mamie Whaley, a husband and wife in Laurel, in the case that caused the legislature to reinstate the death penalty, although it had to override the veto of Bert Carvel, the Democratic governor, to do so.
It recalled the crimes of Steven Brian Pennell, the serial killer who became the first to be executed here in 46 years in 1992, for murdering women by picking them up in his van, torturing and mutilating them and strangling them to death.
It had Brian Pettyjohn, a Republican senator who used to be the mayor of Georgetown, holding the Senate's attention as he recounted the September day in 2009 when Officer Chad Spicer was gunned down, a day he said was seared into his mind the way it was for people who never forgot where they were when John Kennedy was shot.
Strangely, the debate never mentioned the murder that reached most deeply into Legislative Hall itself, when Tom Capano killed Anne Marie Fahey in 1996.
The vote in the Senate almost assuredly will not be the last word, and not only because the bill still has to be considered by the House, and if it passes there, by the governor.
Delaware has gone back and forth on the death penalty, depending upon the public emotions of the time, from repeal in 1958 to reinstatement in 1961 to the current debate that could potentially end it, but for how long?
As Pettyjohn asked the chamber, "What happens when the next Chad Spicer is killed?"