Government

Iowa lawmakers will debate reinstating death penalty

But change appears doubtful amid other priorities

State Sen. Jerry Behn, R-Boone, has pressed the issue of reinstating the death penalty for two decades in the Iowa Legislature.
State Sen. Jerry Behn, R-Boone, has pressed the issue of reinstating the death penalty for two decades in the Iowa Legislature.

DES MOINES — Bringing the death penalty back to Iowa likely will get debated but probably not approved during the 2018 legislative session, key lawmakers say.

Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he plans to assign a subcommittee to take up Senate File 335 with an eye on possibly expanding the provisions, but he is uncertain how far the issue may go in a session already loaded with more pressing priorities.

S.F. 335, introduced by a group of Senate Republicans last session, would restore capital punishment in Iowa for the first time since 1965 by establishing a two-pronged process.

A jury or judge could convict a perpetrator of committing multiple class A offenses, and separately make a decision whether to execute the offender by lethal injection. Any death penalty conviction automatically would be appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court, and juvenile offenders would be exempted.

Proponents say it would allow capital punishment in cases where an adult kidnaps, rapes and murders a minor. Zaun said there are some who would like to expand it to situations where police officers are killed in the line of duty or other heinous circumstances.

“My promises at this point are that I will promise that I will assign a subcommittee and the subcommittee will hold a hearing so people could weigh in on whether they’re for or against that,” he said. “I think considering some of the tragedies that have happened here in the state of Iowa, and I’ve heard from so many Iowans who would at least like to have the conversation started.”

One of those is Sen. Jerry Behn, R-Boone, the bill’s lead sponsor who has raised the issue for nearly two decades in the Legislature without success in getting it passed.

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“Right now in Iowa, if you kidnap and rape someone, there’s a perverted incentive to murder your victim because you’re no worse off. I think that’s not appropriate at any level and we’ve had a couple horrific crimes of similar nature in the past and I would just as soon not wait for another one of those horrific crimes before we try to do something about it,” Behn said. “That was the genesis of introducing the bill in the first place to fix that.”

The Boone Republican said he believes the death penalty is a deterrent to crime worth considering and believes it would get public backing if it were a topic of discussion again in the Legislature, although he has not gauged support for it among legislators.

Sen. Rich Taylor, D-Mount Pleasant, a ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee who worked for 27 years in the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, said he is willing to listen to the arguments for reinstating capital punishment but he doubts there were be enough support for Senate passage.

“For me, it’s a no. Somebody’s going to have to show me some real good reason to change my mind on that,” said Taylor.

“There’s too many chances for error and we’ve seen that over the last few years with the new DNA sampling. There are a lot of people in prison who really shouldn’t have been there in the first place. So, if we have the death penalty, there’s no return from that,” he said.

“It rather surprises me that the Republicans on one hand say all life is precious and believe that life begins at conception and then are for the death penalty on the other end,” added Taylor. “It’s pretty contradictory.”

Taylor said the death penalty is such a divisive issue he questions whether lawmakers should take it up in a year already beset with some major issues as the GOP-run General Assembly works to erase a projected budget deficit and consider a major rewrite of the individual income tax code.

Top lawmakers from both parties had similar views in pre-session interviews.

“I haven’t heard from folks in my community about that being a key priority this year,” said House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow, R-Windsor Heights. “I just haven’t seen it rise as a priority on our side yet, so I’m not particularly concerned about.”

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Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, said he is aware there is interest within his caucus to have a debate on the issue and he is willing to let the process work and see where it goes.

l Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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