One-time capital punishment proponent asks state legislators to act on stalled SB 19

Saying he had come to Delaware not to cajole but to request, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson told reporters Thursday he supports efforts to repeal the death penalty in the First State.

Richardson appeared in the General Assembly’s House Caucus room on behalf of the Wilmington-based Delaware Repeal Project, a coalition of death penalty opponents.

Legislation to remove capital punishment from Delaware was introduced in the state Senate on March 12, 2013. Sponsored by Sen. Karen Peterson, (D-Stanton), Senate Bill 19 narrowly made it out of the Senate, passing by one vote, but since March 28 of last year has been tabled in the House Judiciary Committee.

That panel has split, 6 to 5, against bringing the bill to the House floor.

Richardson, who once had supported the death penalty, said he changed his mind while governor.

“The issue became more real to me because I knew the day would come when one of two things would happen:  I would either have to take action on legislation to repeal the death penalty, or, more daunting, I might have to sign someone’s death warrant,” he said.

Richardson approved repeal of New Mexico’s death penalty on March 18, 2009.

“In a society that values individual life and personal liberty above all else, where justice and not vengeance is the singular guiding principal of our criminal justice system, the potential for wrongful conviction and, God forbid, execution of an innocent person, stands as anathema to our very sensibilities as human beings,” he said.

Richardson urged members of the Judiciary Committee to release the bill and allow the full House to give it an up or down vote.

“At the very, very least, Delaware deserves a vote on this important piece of legislation,” he said.

Richardson concluded the press conference with a private meeting with House Speaker Peter D. Schwartzkopf, (D-Rehoboth), but a House spokesman said Schwartzkopf would not comment on what the men had discussed.

House co-sponsor Rep. Paul Baumbach, (D-Newark), said SB-19 has strong support in the House, but its proponents have been unable to get one of the six holdouts to change their vote.

The only other option, albeit a remote one, would be to get at least 21 House members to sign a petition taking the bill out of committee, Baumbach said.

“No one wants to do that,” he said. “Instead, we’d love to have those who represent the people stand and speak on the issue.”

Delaware State Troopers Association President Thomas J. Brackin called Richardson’s remarks “the same message we’ve been hearing from the other advocates who have been trotted in from out of state since this issue began.”

“No one is naïve enough to think the death penalty is going to stop all murders, however no one can quantify how many times a potential murderer has not committed the act because they considered they might get the death penalty,” Brackin said.

Supporters on both side of the argument are well intentioned, but those who call for its repeal are operating under false assumptions, he said.

“As law enforcement officers, where we take issue is the facts, outside of the moral questions, are simply incorrect,” Brackin said.

Richardson said he had met with Gov. Jack Markell before the press conference, but would not go into detail.

“We had a very good meeting, he’s very interested in this issue,” Richardson said. “I’m not going to characterize his position, but I think it’s important that this is an issue the Delaware legislature and the political community is going to face.”

Markell said he is continuing to follow the death penalty debate.

“This is a difficult issue,” the governors said in an email through Social Media Manager Kelly Bachman. “I have given it serious thought, particularly given my involvement with death penalty cases as governor and as state treasurer, when I served on the board of pardons.

“I will continue listening to people from both sides of the debate.”