Mobilizing to Pass Delaware’s Death Penalty Repeal Legislation in 2015

October 13, 2014

by Abraham Bonowitz

Abraham Bonowitz is a member of Catholic Mobilizing Networks Advisory Board 

quoteThe Delaware Repeal Project (DE Repeal), a coalition of 29 partner organizations in Delaware, educates Delawareans about the problems of the death penalty system and leads the campaign to repeal the death penalty in the state.

The coalition was founded in 2011 as a partnership with Delaware Citizens Opposed to the Death Penalty (organizing and educating about Delaware’s death penalty for over 20 years), the League of Women Voters, the Delaware Center for Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware, the NAACP and Pacem in Terris (a local peace and justice organization).

A bill to repeal the death penalty passed in the Delaware Senate in 2013 and died in the House Judiciary Committee in 2014.  The campaign and its many allies are setting the stage for quick passage of a new bill in the 2015 legislative session. There is strong bi-partisan support, including from conservative Republican legislators remaining true to their Catholic faith.

“The Delaware Repeal Project is mobilizing its partners from all corners of the state. We have collaborated with a broad range of religious communities, including the bishops and leadership of all of the major Christian and Jewish faiths, the heads of our most active African-American churches, and more than 120 other clergy,” said Ti Hall, DE Repeal Projects’ Campaign Manager. “Also involved are families who have lost a loved one to murder, non-profit organizations, civic groups and individuals who are all helping to promote a conversation about the flaws of Delaware’s death penalty system and the opportunity to replace it.”

More than 140 faith leaders have added their names to a “Clergy Sign-on letter,” and those who have not yet done so may add their names here.

DE Repeal is focusing on expanding the coalition and grassroots support. To this end, the organization attends festivals and fairs throughout Delaware and regularly engages the faith community. “Death Penalty Awareness Days” are scheduled from November 14-23, 2014, providing two weekends in which clergy are asked to preach on the issues and mobilize worshipers. Town Hall meetings will take place in various parts of the state on November 18, 19 and 20. Details on these events and the Death Penalty Awareness Days will be posted soon at www.DERepeal.org.

One of the featured speakers at the upcoming Town Hall meetings will be John Breckenridge, a retired police officer from New Hampshire whose partner was murdered as they investigated a disturbance. Breckenridge originally supported the death penalty for the killer; however, in time and with a return to his Catholic faith, he has come to forgiveness. He now advocates for an end to the death penalty.

Catholics and others ready to help end the death penalty in Delaware are urged to sign up with the DE Repeal Project at www.DERepeal.org and to ask their state Senator and Representative to support a bill to repeal Delaware’s death penalty. Legislative Advocacy can begin now and will be very important when the legislative session resumes in January, 2015. The Delaware Repeal Project seeks volunteer “captains” to assist in local organizing, leading the effort within their Parish, and/or helping to ensure that many Delaware Repeal supporters are at Legislative Hall in Dover on lobby days and on days when the bill will be voted on. For more information and to get involved, contact ti@derepeal.org.

Delaware Death Penalty Background

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Abe Bonowitz and Sr. Helen Prejean with DE Project staff and volunteers

Delaware has executed 16 men since 1992. Per capita, Delaware ranks third in executions and fifth in death sentences. 16 men are presently on death row. Delaware shamefully boasts some of the broadest death penalty laws in the country.  In Delaware, a defendant can receive a death sentence for driving a get-away car even if he/she didn’t pull the trigger and actually kill someone. Delaware, along with Florida and Alabama, are the only states where the jury makes a non-unanimous recommendation to a judge, who then makes the final decision about life or death.

After almost six years out of the limelight because of a challenge to lethal injection protocols, Delaware’s death penalty system began grabbing headlines again when the state executed Robert Jackson in July of 2011. Derrick Powell and Leslie Small were sentenced to death in the months following. In April of 2012, Delaware executed again when the state took the life of Shannon Johnson.

On a more positive note, for the first time in Delaware history, the clemency petition of a death row inmate was granted when Robert Gattis received clemency from Governor Jack Markell in 2012 after the Board of Pardons recommended clemency on a 4-1 vote. His death sentence was reduced to life in prison without parole.

For more information on the Delaware Repeal Project, or Delaware’s death penalty, visit www.derepeal.org or contact Ti Hall at Ti@derepeal.org. You can stay up-to-date with all the happenings of the DE Repeal Project by signing up on the website. Ready to be an advocate? Check out CMN’s Legislative Talking Points for Delaware.

This article first appeared in CMN’s October 2014 newsletter.