Law enforcement opposes SB19
All law enforcement in the State of Delaware has joined together to oppose Senate Bill 19; an initiative to strike from the Delaware statutes what is commonly referred to as the Death Penalty.
Never before in the history of the state has the law enforcement community come together to present one united voice. Representing over 5,000 individual members, this coalition includes the State Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, the Delaware State Troopers Association, the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware and the Delaware Police Chiefs’ Council.
On March 26, 2013, this initiative passed the Senate by a bare majority and now awaits action in the state House of Representatives. We view this action, and potential for action, as a direct threat to the welfare and safety of those that we represent and to the community at large that we have sworn to serve and protect.
There is a misconception among many in the community, and perhaps some in the legislature, that all who take a life are subject to the death penalty. In fact very few ever meet the stringent requirements in place before they can be tried for a capital offense. As an example, in Delaware between 2008 and 2012, 203 persons were charged with Murder in the First Degree. During that same period only five individuals were sentenced to death. Why so few?
In Delaware pursuit of Murder in the First Degree case is reserved for the absolute worst of the worst. The Attorney General first must decide to pursue a case against an individual based on the evidence. Then a jury must unanimously convict the charged of Murder First Degree and also must unanimously determine that a statutory “aggravating circumstance” exists. If both standards are met the trial judge then, and only then, can impose the death penalty.
Since this issue goes well beyond officer safety, it is important that one clearly understands what is being proposed and focus on what constitutes an “aggravating circumstance” as defined in Title 11, Chapter 42 of the Delaware Code. SB 19 proposes to strip these from the laws of Delaware, thereby eliminating the possible imposition of the death penalty to those who would commit the following heinous acts.
These acts include but are not limited to:
• Murder during the commission of a rape, kidnapping, arson, robbery or home invasion
• Murder of a child
• Murder committed with explosives, poison or torture
• Murder of a police officer, corrections officer or first responder during the performance of their duties
• Murder for hire
• Murder of a hostage
• Murder of a witness for the purpose of preventing their testimony
• Murder of a person held for ransom.
• Murder committed by an escaped convict, or by a person previously convicted of a violent felony
As part of their rationale for doing this the proponents of SB 19 would have you believe that the system of justice in Delaware is broken and that we have abandoned our collective moral compass in order to feed our appetite for revenge. The truth is that between 1976 and now, there has never been a murder conviction reversed by an appellate court because of doubts about the convict’s guilt. Advocates for this change have made the claim that the state will save money by ending appeals. What they fail to tell you is appeals exist and will continue to exist regardless of whether or not the death penalty is in place. Murderers serving life sentences file appeals for as long as they live. They further suggest that the justice system is racially biased. Not only is this claim a slap in the face to every Delaware judge who sits on the bench and every juror who has ever served during a capital murder trial, it is simply not true. The percentage of African Americans on death row is significantly lower than the percentage of African Americans charged with Murder First Degree. Between 2008 and 2012, 80 percent of those charged with Murder First Degree were African American. However, they represent only 61 percent of Delaware's death row population as of this writing.
There will never be total agreement on whether the death penalty ultimately saves lives. There have been hundreds of studies done throughout the years that contradict each other. However, what we can agree on is that once the penalty is imposed, that individual will never murder again. Although this argument is often dismissed out of hand, it does matter. According to the U.S. Department of Justice about nine percent of all death row inmates were convicted of another homicide before they committed the crime that led to their death sentence. This obvious outcome is supported by recent studies summarized in an article printed in the New York Times. These studies suggested that for each convicted murderer put to death, 3 - 18 murders are prevented. Another study concluded that as a result of the death penalty moratorium in Illinois, it led to an additional 150 homicides prior to it being lifted. And, a recent Gallup Poll found that 63 percent of Americans favor use of the Death Penalty for those convicted of murder. In today's political environment, it is rare to find 63 percent of Americans agreeing on anything.
Currently, as law enforcement officers in Delaware if one of us is murdered during the performance of our duties, the individual can be charged with a Capital Crime. We know in our hearts and by virtue of our experiences on the job that the threat of the death penalty has saved lives. It is difficult to quantify how many or how often it has occurred; but we know that it has.
During the Senate Debate on SB 19 some stated that taking the life of a law enforcement officer is no different than taking any other life. We agree that all life is precious and must be respected. However, society as a whole remains civil only when its laws and statutes are judiciously enforced. We do not consider ourselves special or privileged. However what we do is unique, specialized and necessary. When a police officer is killed in the line of duty, society has lost more than just that life. Society has lost what that life represents - the delicate line between a civilized society and anarchy.
When all of the facts are better understood by the public it becomes more difficult to rationalize a yes vote on SB 19. As a coalition, we will continue to educate the public and raise the level of discussion from this point through the 2014 election and beyond. We ask that you too engage in this discussion by contacting those that represent you in the Delaware General Assembly. Convey to them that this is a misguided approach that discards an infrequently used, yet important tool, in keeping our community safe from those that do harm. The stakes are too high and the cost to society too great to do otherwise.
Thomas J. Brackin
Delaware State Troopers Association
State Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police
Correctional Officers Association of Delaware
Delaware Police Chiefs’ Council