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Delaware lawmakers move to outlaw the death penalty

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(The Center Square) — The Delaware House of Representatives has approved a bill that would officially outlaw the state’s death penalty, which comes nearly eight years after the state’s highest court ruled that the capital sentencing statute is unconstitutional.

The legislation, which passed on a vote of 33-8 with Republicans opposing it, would eliminate the death penalty from state code and require that any adult convicted of first-degree murder be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of probation, parole, or any other sentence reduction.

“Our State has a long and shameful history surrounding the death penalty,” state Rep. Sean Lynn, D-Dover, one of the bill’s primary sponsors, said in a statement. “For decades we have continued to back the wrong horse in our choices around capital punishment. It’s time that we bring this deplorable chapter to a close.”

The bill, which requires approval by the Senate, would essentially eliminate the death penalty from the state’s criminal code. Another proposal, which calls for updating the state Constitution to outlaw the death penalty permanently, has languished in a House committee. That bill would require a two-thirds vote in both chambers for approval.

Delaware’s capital punishment law, enacted in 2002, requires that in order for a defendant to be eligible for the death penalty, a jury must unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt find at least one statutory aggravating circumstance.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2016 decision in Hurst v. Florida led to the Delaware Supreme Court to declare the state’s capital sentencing procedures unconstitutional, leaving Delaware without a valid death penalty statute. Since that decision, Delaware has been unable to impose the death penalty, but the statute is still codified in state law.

Supporters of the legislation say while the death penalty hasn’t been used as a form of punishment in Delaware since 2016, the state still has the 4th highest per capita execution rate in the country.

“It’s well-past time to move past this practice once and for all, and instead focus our resources on addressing the root causes of crime,” said state Sen. Kyle Evans Gay, D-Tallyville, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “If we do not act on this legislation, we continue to risk revisiting a flawed and biased tool that has never once been shown to make Delawareans safer.”

Republican lawmakers have argued against repealing the law and have pushed to amend it to address constitutional concerns raised by the state’s highest court.

A pair of GOP lawmakers — state Reps. Tim Dukes, R-Laurel, and Danny Short, R-Seaford — filed the “Law Enforcement and First Responders Protection Act” that would reserve the death penalty for suspects convicted of murdering police officers or public safety officials.

“The fact is, our first responders in law enforcement, they put their lives on the line every day,” Dukes said in a statement at the time. “We want them to know that we care and that we have their back and we want to support them.”

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