Slim chance for bringing death penalty back to Iowa

State Senator Kent Sorenson announced last week that he will file a bill to reinstate the death penalty. However, neither Democratic leaders in the Iowa Senate nor Republican leaders in the Iowa House have taken up the call.

Yesterday an autopsy confirmed that bodies hunters found in northeast Iowa woods last week were Elizabeth Collins and Lyric Cook, two cousins who went missing in July. The girls’ disappearance was a major news story throughout Iowa, and the tragedy inspired Sorenson to try to pass a death penalty bill. In his opinion, Elizabeth and Lyric might still be alive if whoever killed them had known that he might face the death penalty.

Research on homicide rates in states with and without the death penalty shows no evidence that capital punishment deters violent crime. However, heinous crimes like the murder of children often fuel public support for the death penalty. Governor Terry Branstad made capital punishment a central issue in his fourth campaign for governor in 1994, after a rapist and murderer kidnapped and killed an Iowa girl.

Branstad didn’t put much effort behind reinstating the death penalty during his first four terms as governor and hasn’t raised the issue since being elected to a fifth term in 2010. At his weekly press conference yesterday, he made clear he’s not going to push for this change next year either.

“I like to focus on things I think have a realistic chance of being approved and I think considering the present make-up of the senate…that we need to focus on things that I can accomplish in the next couple of years,” Branstad says.

Branstad, a Republican, made the issue a central focus of his 1994 campaign, calling for a limited death penalty for those convicted of two “Class A” felonies, like kidnapping and then the murder of the victim. […]

“My position is well-known and my position has been consistent throughout the last 20 or 25 years,” Branstad says. “And my position is consistent with my philosophy of protecting innocent human life and trying to prevent dangerous criminals from committing further murders.”

Branstad has long argued his limited death penalty would be a deterrent to those who commit violent crimes and kill the victim in hopes of covering up the crime.

“That is the limited instance when I think the death penalty could be appropriate,” Branstad says. “I also recognize the political realities of the General Assembly and that under the present make-up of the General Assembly, that’s not likely to happen.”

Senate Democrats had no comment on Sorenson’s remarks. Any bill on the death penalty would have to go through the Senate Judiciary Committee. That committee’s former chair, Gene Fraise, retired from the legislature. Democrats have not yet decided who will lead the committee next year.

Iowa House Republican leaders did not respond to my request for comment on whether they will support a capital punishment bill during the upcoming legislative session. To my knowledge, neither Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen nor incoming House Judiciary Committee Chair Chip Baltimore has echoed Sorenson’s call for bringing the death penalty back to Iowa. I couldn’t find any public record of Baltimore speaking about capital punishment in the past.

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