Senate File 296 was signed through subcommittee on Wednesday. The bill creates a capital murder offense by establishing the death penalty for murder in the first degree offenses involving kidnapping and sexual abuse offenses against the same victim who is a minor.
“This bill simply tries to at least remove the incentive to murder the child after doing two other items which already achieve life without parole,” said Republican Sen. Jason Schultz. “I don’t find the death penalty to be unbiblical or unChristian. I believe that it doesn’t matter if it is a deterrent or not — some crimes (are so heinous) you must be removed.”
Marty Ryan of Iowans Against the Death Penalty obviously spoke against the bill. He said the organization has fought the issue since 1963. He told a story about a man who kidnapped someone from Iowa and took them to Missouri where he raped and murdered them. The county in Missouri had the death penalty, Iowa did not.
“If (the death penalty) had any kind of deterrent effect, he probably would’ve done it in Iowa so he would’ve had a life sentence,” Ryan said.
He said the death penalty would not be equally applied throughout Iowa. Some county attorneys will push for the punishment, but others won’t. Ryan guaranteed that Polk County would not use the death penalty under any circumstance as long as it retains the current county attorney.
It would also impact people in poor, rural counties, Ryan said. Those counties usually prosecute a death penalty, he said.
Mark Stringer of the ACLU said Iowa was wise when it repealed the death penalty, which he called unfair, discriminatory and fraught with error.
“The decision between life and death often turns on race, geography, quality of counsel,” Stringer said. “It fails to protect the innocent.”
Connie Ryan of Interfaith Alliance of Iowa Action Fund was in opposition. She made a racial case against the death penalty as well. She also expressed concern innocent people would be sent to death. She called the death penalty unfair, unnecessary, ineffective and morally wrong.
Eric Tabor from the Iowa Attorney General Dept. of Justice said the key thing is that Iowa already has a de facto death penalty.
“Life in Iowa means life,” he said. “Defendants convicted for first degree murder die in prison.”
Cost and the lack of serving as a deterrent came up from a few speakers as well who were against the bill.
Patti McKee said she was the victim of a violent crime and knows the terror of having someone’s hands around her throat, squeezing her breath out of her.
“Had I died that day, it would’ve been to cover up another crime,” she said. “I sit here opposed to the death penalty. To me it is just state-sponsored vengeance and murder. And as a taxpayer I would be complicit. I say, not in my name. I don’t want blood on my hands.”
Patti Brown of Dallas County said she is a Republican on the county central committee and has been involved for a long time with Iowans Against the Death Penalty. She also sat on a murder trial, she said, and voted to convict someone of murder.
She too expressed concern with the cost and said many conservative states have recently moved away from the death penalty. She said any Catholic upset with the abortion bills in New York, Virginia and other states would be violating the same catechism teachings the Democrats violated.
“If you want to vote with your faith, as a Catholic, please vote against the idea of pursuing the death penalty in Iowa,” Brown said.
Others spoke against the death penalty from a religious perspective.
Republican Sen. Jason Schultz signed the bill out of committee along with fellow Republicans Jake Chapman and Julian Garrett.
Democrat Sen. Tony Bisignano said he was disappointed the bill was in subcommittee. He said the issue has been motivated by politics for a long time.
“I think it gives false hope,” Bisignano said. “I think it brings back horrible memories to people. This is the smallest room we’ve ever had a subcommittee in on the death penalty. Last session I think we filled Room 116 and it took a very long time. I think we probably had a dozen people who supported the death penalty. Today we have none. This idea is old, this idea is unacceptable in our time and I wish it wasn’t here.”
Fellow Democrat Sen. Janet Petersen refused to sign as well. She talked about being asked to teach someone else’s child how to drive in her district last year. While driving together for the first time, Petersen said she was asked if she was scared of having the police pull her over. The mother was from Nigeria.
“I thought how hard that must be to worry about getting pulled over,” Petersen said. “I know our criminal justice system has made mistakes and it’s cost some people their lives.”
She suggested changing the statute of limitations for reporting some of those crimes.
Chapman said examining the Gallup polls since as early as 1937, only one Gallup poll showed the majority did not support the death penalty. Most recently, he said the poll shows 56 percent support the death penalty.
“In my opinion some crimes are so heinous, so despicable, that the only proper justice is to have their life taken,” Chapman said. “The kidnapping, rape and murder of a minor is about as bad as it could come. I respect those who have differing opinions on this issue.”