Republicans on the Senate Judiciary committee were able to get a bill through Thursday afternoon that would reinstate the death penalty on a very limited basis in Iowa. The death penalty would only be an option in cases where a minor is kidnapped, raped and murdered.
Currently anyone who kidnaps and rapes a minor receives life without parole, the same punishment as someone who kidnaps, rapes and murders a minor.
Republican Senators Amy Sinclair and Zach Nunn joined all five Democrats — Kevin Kinney, Tony Bisignano, Janet Petersen, Rob Hogg and Rich Taylor — in opposing the bill. The measure passed by a slim 8-7 margin.
“It addresses a problem, I believe an unintentional issue in our Iowa code, we have created a perverse incentive to kill children once you have already kidnapped and raped them,” said Republican Sen. Jason Schultz.
The only alternative to supporting this bill is to reduce the punishment for those who kidnap and rape minors.
“I wouldn’t want to do that, I wouldn’t support that, I don’t believe anyone in this room would want to,” Schultz said.
Democrat Sen. Tony Bisignano said the topic of the death penalty has come and gone through the legislature during his time at the Capitol. And it never goes anywhere.
“I floor managed it (in 1994),” Bisignano said. “We debated it and the longer we debated it, the more votes we were losing. In the end, 11 people voted. There hasn’t been a floor debate I don’t believe since then in the Iowa Senate. I don’t believe that the time has come. I don’t think this in any way improves our state. I don’t think it discourages people from murdering.”
Bisignano expressed concern with the state executing someone who was wrongly convicted. He also said the death penalty is handed to people who society has already shunned more often than wealthy people.
“I think the death penalty is probably one of the cruelest things that as a state we could do to people who have probably suffered their entire lifetime before they turned on a victim,” Bisignano said. “I don’t think it’s justice, I think it’s revenge. Do we truly want to legalize the death penalty for revenge? That’s a legitimate argument. I don’t think that’s our role as a civilized state government, but some may.”
Republican Sen. Julian Garrett disagreed with Bisignano and said he believes the death penalty will serve as a deterrent, though studies come to both conclusions when it comes to whether or not the punishment serves as a deterrent.
He pointed to a study done at LSU that showed it is a deterrent. And the evolution of DNA evidence should help the state feel more confident in the death penalty option.
“Senator Bisignano you mentioned DNA, the advances in DNA is one of the reasons why we are much less likely now to make a mistake than we were in the past,” Garrett said. “That’s one of the things that gives me a level of confidence than what we used to have. We can be pretty sure that when we’ve got DNA evidence that we’re doing the right thing.”
Democrat Sen. Janet Petersen talked extensively about raising the statute of limitations for minors who are sexually abused.
“Someone’s kid can be raped by someone and the crime covered up and by their 19th birthday they can’t go after the organization that covered up the crime,” Petersen said. “And we don’t have the will in this committee to deal with that? (This bill) will not protect any child from being raped. The people that are suffering the death penalty are adult survivors of child sexual abuse who cannot go after their abusers. This bill is wrong. We should be focused on prevention.”
Republican Sen. Jake Chapman didn’t disagree that they should be going after those organizations, but he also said the situations are slightly different.
“To suggest that that equates to a child who was kidnapped, raped and murdered — I think we’re on different levels of planes here,” he said. “We often hear that DNA has exonerated individuals who were wrongfully convicted. For that we are grateful that science and technology has exonerated those people. By the same token, we must accept that DNA evidence can also condemn someone.”
Though a difficult topic, Chapman said crime doesn’t get much worse than this.
“We’re talking about the most heinous acts that can happen here in Iowa,” Chapman said. “There isn’t anything much worse than what we’re discussing in a very limited scope to reinstate the death penalty. Iowans support this. They have supported it for many years and it’s our responsibility to represent them. I don’t know whether or not it’s going to deter someone from committing all of these three heinous acts in conjunction with each other, but what I do know is there are just simply some crimes, this being one of them, that are just simply so heinous that the death penalty is warranted.”
He reminded members of the committee it’s not a guaranteed death penalty. A judge and/or a jury still has to decide whether the crime warrants the death penalty.
Democrat Sen. Rob Hogg said this is the first time he’s had to vote on the issue. He’s been in the legislature for 17 years, he said.
“We have not had a death penalty in Iowa since before I was born in 1965,” Hogg said. “Iowa doesn’t need a death penalty. The good book says vengeance is mine says the Lord. Vengeance is mine — not ours.”
Hogg also said if the state kills somebody, the person has no chance to repent.
“I think this is not a debate we want to have on the Senate floor this year,” Hogg said. “I encourage people to just vote no, let this issue go. We haven’t debated it the last 16 years and there’s no reason we need to debate it this year.”
Democrat Sen. Kevin Kinney worked in law enforcement. He said he has seen the horrendous crime scenes.
“One of the things that really has affected me is I can see and I can feel that young person who I had carried out of a trailer or a ditch,” Kinney said. “I know what it’s like. I know how it affects me. I came to the Senate not wanting to work on the death penalty, but wanting to try to help people.”
He talked about the Jetseta Gage case who was kidnapped, raped and murdered. Kinney talked about her convicted killer, Roger Bentley.
“I went back and had a look at how he was raised,” Kinney said. “He did not have a good start in this life either. But, I’ve gone to the Fort Madison, I’ve gone to his cell, I have seen how he sits in his cell for 23 1/2 hours a day. He is living a deplorable life. That is the one thing for me, that if we kill him, that would be a gift to him. I want him to sit in there and rot for the rest of his life, thinking of what he did to that young girl who I had to carry out of that trailer in a body bag. It is more painful for him to sit in that cell and think about it than for us to kill him.”
Schultz finished the conversation by thanking Kinney for his law enforcement service. He pointed out that Bisignano said revenge shouldn’t be society’s goal, but Kinney used the word deserve in talking about Bentley’s punishment.
“Does revenge become a virtuous reason for life without parole,” Schultz asked. “I would not want revenge on either one. I’m actually looking for justice. I believe that there’s justice when you have crossed a certain line that your life will be taken. Justice.”
Schultz said personally he’d expand the death penalty if it were up to him. He talked about those who are pro-life and oppose the death penalty because of that position.
“I think it’s very pro-life to say that tens of thousands of people over the decades have been killed by previously convicted murderers who were out for whatever reason,” Schultz said. “Had they been executed, tens of thousands of victims would not have happened. I believe the death penalty is pro-life because I’m worried about the victim, I’m not worried about the perpetrator.”
Historically, Schultz said, society and the church only started changing their views on the death penalty around 1950.
“Western civilization, going all the way back to Mosaic Law, not only supported but demanded this,” Schultz said. “All through the ages — through 4,000 years of Old Testament through 2,000 years of New Testament.”
Schultz cited Genesis 9:6.
“Effectively, if a man sheds blood then his blood shall be shed by man,” Schultz said. “It was a command that in order to defend life, life shall be taken for justice.”
Western civilization is weakening, Schultz said.
“Some how we’ve twisted around the victim is irrelevant and the perpetrator suddenly we have to defend their life,” he said. “I don’t like that.”
Democrat Rep. Mary Wolfe posted about the bill on Facebook. She said the Senate knows the House won’t take up the bill and said it was a lot of time and drama spent on a bill going nowhere.