DOVER, Del. (AP) — An effort to abolish Delaware's death penalty failed in the state House on Thursday, but proponents of the measure say they will continue fighting until capital punishment is outlawed.
The legislation, which would not apply to inmates currently on death row, received 16 votes, short of the 21 needed for passage. Twenty-three lawmakers voted against the bill, which Democratic Gov. Jack Markell has said he would sign.
"I had hoped that after giving the arguments careful consideration, the House would realize, as I did, that the death penalty is an instrument of imperfect justice," Markell said in a prepared statement. "I understand that it is an incredibly difficult issue, and I respect all viewpoints. While this was not the time to repeal the death penalty, I believe that time will come."
Supporters of the bill, which cleared the Senate last year by a single vote, said they would try to resurrect the measure after a five-week break for budget committee meetings. Under House rules, a bill that has been defeated can be recalled for another vote within three legislative days upon the request of a member on the prevailing side. Rep. Kim Williams, a Newport Democrat who supports abolishing the death penalty, deliberately voted against the bill so she could have it brought back up in March.
Meanwhile, Delaware's Supreme Court agreed to accept and answer questions submitted by a Superior Court judge on the constitutionality of Delaware's death penalty statute in light of two U.S. Supreme Court rulings earlier this month.
Delaware has 13 inmates on death row but does not have the necessary chemicals to carry out an execution if one were ordered.
Delaware is one of 31 states with the death penalty. Nineteen states, along with the District of Columbia, have abolished capital punishment.
Supporters of the repeal bill, including many clerics, argue that the death penalty is morally wrong, racially discriminatory, ineffective as a deterrent to violent crime and far more costly than sentencing killers to life in prison without parole.
"The death penalty is disproportionately applied to already marginalized populations," said chief House sponsor Rep. Sean Lynn, D-Dover, adding that the roots of capital punishment in Delaware are "forever mired in our history, our past, of slavery and segregation."
Several other Democratic lawmakers also spoke in favor of the bill during an emotional, hourlong debate.
The only person to speak against the bill was Mary Cairns, invited by House Minority Leader Danny Short, R-Seaford, to speak on behalf of the parents of Lindsey Bonistall. Bonistall, a 20-year-old University of Delaware student from White Plains, New York, was raped and murdered in 2005 by a man now on death row.
"By a show of hands, how many of you sitting here today have had their daughter beaten, raped, choked to death and set on fire in a random act of violence?" Cairns asked as lawmakers sat in silence. "Anybody?"
Opponents of the bill, including many in the law enforcement community, have argued that it is a necessary and just punishment for those who commit heinous murders. Among lawmakers voting against the bill were House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth, and Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. John Mitchell, D-Elsmere, both retired police officers.
Judiciary Committee members voted 6-5 last May not to send the bill to the full House after it passed the Senate. The bill languished in the committee until last week, when Mitchell agreed to send it to the full House.
"I remain hopeful," Lynn said after Thursday's vote. "This is going to happen.... It's going to happen, either by the courts or by the legislature."
Delaware's death penalty has had a tortuous history over the past 50 years.
In 1958, Gov. J. Caleb Boggs signed a bill abolishing the death penalty, making Delaware only the second state in the nation, after Missouri, to abolish capital punishment.
Three years later, lawmakers passed a bill reinstating the death penalty after the killings of an elderly Sussex County farm couple. Gov. Elbert Carvel vetoed the measure, but Senate and House lawmakers overrode him.
In 1991, lawmakers held a special session to change Delaware's death penalty law, giving judges the final say on whether to impose the death penalty after considering a jury's recommendation. The move came amid public outrage after four men convicted of robbing and murdering two armored car guards all received life sentences after jurors could not unanimously agree on the death penalty.