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Republicans renew death penalty debate in Iowa
Earlier bills have not gained traction, but backers say this year may be different
By Luke Clausen - Iowa Capital Dispatch
Jan. 17, 2023 3:32 pm
Iowa lawmakers could begin as early as this week to begin work on Republicans’ latest effort to reinstate the death penalty in Iowa.
State Sen. Brad Zaun has reintroduced a bill into the Senate Judiciary Committee that could bring back the death penalty in Iowa “for murder in the first degree” when it “involve(es) kidnapping and sexual abuse offenses against” a minor.
“There’s been several instances in the state of Iowa where the person kills the child after they have sexually abused them,” said Zaun, an Urbandale Republican. “Many times what’s happened is that once they have finished all their sexual abuse, because they know that the penalty is not higher, there’s almost incentive to kill off your potential witness. And I find this behavior despicable. That is the reason why I have refiled this bill.”
Currently, the penalty for the rape and kidnapping of a minor and the rape, kidnapping and murder of a minor is the same. Both crimes bring a life sentence in prison upon conviction.
“That’s always bothered me, that there’s almost a perverse incentive … to kill the victim so there won’t be a witness,” state Sen. Julian Garrett said.
Garrett, R-Indianola, chairs the subcommittee assigned to consider Zaun’s bill, Senate File 14. He has not yet scheduled a subcommittee meeting on the bill but said it could be soon.
“Obviously, if you don’t, the victim is then free … to testify against the perpetrator and the perpetrator knows that,” Garrett said. “So it seems to me we need something to try to deter a kidnapper or rapist from killing their victim.”
A similar bill was introduced in 2019 and again in 2021, but did not reach the floor for a vote. Capital punishment has not been used in Iowa since it was abolished in the state in 1965 by Democratic Gov. Harold Hughes. Legislation to reinstate capital punishment has not been debated on the floor of either chamber since 1995.
Marty Ryan, president of Iowans Against the Death Penalty, disagrees that this bill would deter perpetrators more than the current statutes. He said perpetrators don’t think they’re going to get caught in the first place, so the deterrence of the death penalty will be null.
“A person who rapes, murders and kidnaps a child is facing three life sentences without the possibility of parole. Three,” Ryan said. “That’s death right there. You’re going to die in prison.”
Zaun said with the larger Republican majorities in the House and Senate, his bill has a better chance of passing this year.
“We do have a new Judiciary Committee and a new Legislature and there’s a lot of new members,” Zaun said. “I do think it’s got a better chance in the Legislature.”
Former Republican Gov. Terry Branstad made bringing back capital punishment a major issue in his 1994 re-election campaign, but was unsuccessful in pushing the Senate to pass the bill after the House approved it in 1995.
“Once they get in the door with a death penalty, they’ll always want to try to expand it. Who’s next? It’s what I call the Animal Farm bills. First, we get this bill in, and then we add the police, then we add correctional officers, then we add health care workers and that’s how it goes,” Ryan said. “This is while other states are getting rid of their death penalty. Why would we want to get it started?”
Both Zaun and Garrett emphasized the narrowness of the bill and said they believe for this particular combination of crimes, the death penalty should be on the table.
“I’m not a death penalty advocate,” Zaun said. “But in this particular circumstance, I think it’s a change that’s needed.
This article first appeared in the Iowa Capital Dispatch.