An Iowa Senate subcommittee gave approval to Senate Study Bill 1004 on Thursday. The bill would legalize the death penalty in Iowa for cases where a minor is kidnapped, raped and murdered.
Currently, under Iowa law the maximum penalty for kidnapping and raping a child is identical if you kidnap, rape and murder a child.
Republican State Senators Julian Garrett and Jason Schultz supported the bill while Democrat State Sen. Tony Bisignano did not.
Garrett noted it is a “very limited” death penalty bill with many safeguards built into it.
Nearly everyone who spoke on the bill spoke against it.
Connie Ryan of Interfaith Alliance of Iowa Action Fund, an organization that routinely advocates against conservative principles, highlighted a letter written a couple of years ago where 170 faith leaders spoke against the death penalty.
“We fervently oppose the death penalty and ask you as elected officials to oppose it as well,” she said.
The letter said it is with “heavy hearts” they recognize the state of Iowa is considering legislation that they know to be “wrong, immoral and contrary” to the facts that have become so apparent across the nation.
Tom Chapman of the Iowa Catholic Conference spoke against the bill. He noted it is a duty of the state to punish offenders and defend the common good, but the Catholic church doesn’t believe it is necessary to take a further life to accomplish that goal.
“We believe that state-sanctioned killing, in this case, does not deter and end violence but instead perhaps perpetuates a cycle of violence,” Chapman said.
Nathan Blake of the Attorney General’s office testified against the bill, noting the death penalty does not deter crime and places a huge burden on the judicial system.
Sharon Wegner, an Iowa attorney, said the “risk of getting a case incorrect is too high” when it comes to the death penalty. And she pointed to a logjam in the courts already as a reason to avoid instituting the death penalty in Iowa.
Laura Hessburg of the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence spoke against the bill, saying the government should not kill a human being as restitution or punishment regardless of the crime committed.
Pastor Sam Jones of Hudson was the lone voice in support of the bill. He asked the panel to consider going further and implement the death penalty for any first-degree murder in Iowa.
Jones pointed to Genesis 9:6 where it states that whoever sheds man’s blood, by man will his blood be shed.
“We’re not talking about of course putting to death those who are innocent,” Jones said. “We’re talking those who are guilty and who have destroyed that image of God and done incredibly heinous crimes — specifically to minors.”
Jones said Romans makes clear we do not need to fear the government because it does not bear the sword in vain but it does so righteously.
Capital punishment is to be enacted on those who are guilty of a capital crime, Jones said.
“That is the actual responsibility of our civil government,” he added. “This bill is the least we could do.”
Jaylen Cavil, representing Des Moines BLM, said it is “abhorrent and completely unjustifiable” that the bill is being considered. He said the state has “no power and authority to kill its own citizens, no matter what the crime is.”
Cavil noted he was especially offended by Pastor Jones’ words that were “abhorrent, racist and untrue.” Cavil said the death penalty is racist.
“Who do you think will get killed when we institute (the death penalty)?” he asked. “Black Iowans. Some of whom may be innocent.”
Other Iowans expressed concern over the racial disparity in how the death penalty might be applied in Iowa.
Garrett reiterated that the bill is very limited and only applies in situations where someone has kidnapped, raped and murdered a minor.
“A lot of the comments were just about the death penalty in general,” he said. “And that’s OK, but I want to emphasize that this is dealing with a very limited situation.”
Garrett also said there are numerous safeguards in the bill to make sure good legal representation is provided and the state is paying attention to the mental state of the defendant.
“Another thing I want to hit kind of head on, we hear all the time the death penalty does not deter crime,” Garrett said. “We heard that a lot this afternoon. And there certainly are studies that say that. But there are also studies that say it does deter.”
Schultz said he has a feeling nobody on either side of the issue changed their mind in the subcommittee. He said he is an advocate of the death penalty in appropriate situations.
“And I believe that this would be a very appropriate situation,” Schultz said.
Bisignano noted the death penalty came up in 1994 and failed miserably.
“And it comes back in mutated forms from time to time,” he said.
Those against the death penalty, he said, probably aren’t going to change their minds regardless.
Bisignano echoed parts of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ Condition of the State Address that dealt with criminal justice reform.
“That was enlightening, that was encouraging, that was positive. Iowans were happy to hear that,” he said.
Bisignano said he would prefer to see a death penalty push come from the governor.
“I mean, this sets a tone in Iowa,” he said. “The death penalty isn’t like lowering the drinking age. It isn’t all the other things that we do.”
Of interest, Bisignano said he doesn’t see the urgency to act on this bill. But, if there was a bill that told him people who stormed the Capitol and shot “a bunch of innocent legislators” would get the death penalty — “maybe you’d get a vote or two from the Democrats.”
Garrett closed the subcommittee noting there was a lot of discussion about the perpetrators and little talk about the victims.
“It seems to me they ought to get at least as much, probably more, attention from us than the people that did the killing,” Garrett said.
The bill advances to the full Senate Judiciary Committee.