Fifty-three years after a Democratic-controlled legislature and Democratic governor abolished the death penalty in Iowa, Republicans lack the support to bring back capital punishment, despite large majorities in both chambers.
The sixth week of the Iowa legislative session is known as “funnel week,” because any non-appropriations bill that has not cleared at least one House or Senate committee by the end of the week will be dead for the year. Senate Judiciary Committee chair Brad Zaun told reporters on February 13,
“I am going to go on record here on the death penalty: It is not going to be run; I am putting this to rest,” Zaun said. “I don’t want to say more than that. I have decided it is not going to be on the agenda on Wednesday or Thursday, so it will not be eligible to move on unless someone wants to vote on it and do an amendment, which I can’t control. But in Judiciary, it will not be run.”
A five-member Judiciary subcommittee had approved Senate Study Bill 3134 the previous day, with Republicans Julian Garrett, Jason Schultz, and Dan Dawson voting to advance the bill, while Democrats Tony Bisignano and Rich Taylor voted no. Under the proposal introduced by Zaun, only defendants convicted of murdering a law enforcement officer or multiple offenses of kidnapping, rape, or murder of a child would be eligible for capital punishment. Those opposing the bill cited both practical and moral considerations, William Petroski reported for the Des Moines Register.
Chief Deputy Iowa Attorney General Eric Tabor spoke against bill, providing a letter from Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller which said Iowa already has a de facto death sentence because a life sentence truly means life in prison without the possibility of parole. He noted that Iowa has one of the lowest murder rates in the nation and he said it is doubtful the death penalty can ever be administered fairly and impartially, particularly for African-Americans. […]
“It is wrong and it is immoral,” said Connie Ryan, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa.
House Public Safety Committee Chair Clel Baudler acknowledged last week that he did not have the votes to advance his proposal to allow a death sentence for any first-degree murder. House File 569 cleared a subcommittee on February 1, but one of the yes votes, Republican State Representative Steven Holt, unexpectedly said he would vote no in the full committee. O.Kay Henderson reported for Radio Iowa that Holt believes in the death penalty “conceptually and morally.”
Yet practically, I arrived at a different conclusion than I expected,” Holt said. “I have always believed that life in prison costs taxpayers so much money, yet I found out in researching this legislation it costs more to have someone on death row.”
Holt said he’s also struck by how many individuals have been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death row.
“As a result of DNA evidence, we’re seeing that more and more today,” Holt said. “And it really strikes me deep, the thought of executing someone who is innocent.”
Holt said administering the death penalty fairly was something he struggled with the most.
“Statistics show, without a doubt, that those of lesser means are more likely to receive the death penalty than are those with greater assets and ability to hire the best attorneys, so my conclusion after researching this bill was not exactly what I expected,” Holt said. “I support the death penalty in theory and believe it is absolutely morally o.k. based upon my faith, but I have great issues with its practical and fair application.”
I can’t recall agreeing with Holt about any significant issue before now. All credit to him for thinking about how the death penalty works in practice.
State Representative Mary Wolfe attended the House subcommittee hearing on this bill with her parents. Although their family suffered an unfathomable blow in 2014 when two of Wolfe’s sisters were murdered in Pennsylvania, Wolfe’s father spoke against the bill.
“My daughters were killed,” said John Wolfe, who has spent decades practicing criminal law. “Their lives were taken away from them. It was awful. It should never have happened. And I certainly don’t want to become part of some system that says it’s all right to kill someone. It doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t serve any purpose.”
Rep. Wolfe said she was proud of her dad for coming to speak.
“He and my mom both really wanted to be here,” she said. “I think they do believe that they were speaking on behalf of my sisters, and they both were very much opposed (to the death penalty).”
Republicans will pass plenty of harmful bills before this session ends, but it’s important to celebrate small victories like this one. Democrats who repealed the death penalty in 1965 lost their statehouse majorities the following year, but their bold action is still holding up, generations later.