Death penalty back on the Iowa legislative agenda

The Iowa State House cupola on Thur. Mar 11, 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
The Iowa State House cupola on Thur. Mar 11, 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

DES MOINES – Capital punishment would give the Iowa justice system another “tool” to use in prosecuting offenders who kidnap, rape and murder juveniles, according to proponents of reinstating the death penalty after a 54-year absence.

“It’s one of the things I ran on in ’96 and I still think it’s an appropriate punishment for capital murder,” said Sen. Jerry Behn, R-Boone, who plans to introduce a death penalty bill for the 22nd consecutive year.

He said his bill will be narrower in scope than House File 62, which was introduced Wednesday by Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Orange City, and would allow courts to apply the death penalty if the “aggravating circumstances established beyond a reasonable doubt outweigh any mitigating circumstances” in first-degree capital murder cases.

In either case, Tom Chapman of the Iowa Catholic Conference said “the state should not commit violence to protect Iowans from violence.”

Wheeler, Behn and Sen. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, argue that the possibility of a death sentence would give law enforcement, prosecutors and courts more leverage in dealing with heinous crimes. Under current law, they said, the maximum penalty for kidnapping, rape and murder are all the same – life without parole.

From last year

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.

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“So there’s a perverse incentive for someone who kidnaps and rapes to kill their victim so there is no witness,” Behn said.

Sen. Kevin Kinney, D-Oxford, who is retired from a career in law enforcement, said he has no sympathy for people who kidnap, rape and murder, “but I don’t know if this is the right policy.”


Life without parole “sets the bar pretty high” and may be a harsher punishment, he said.

Last year, a death penalty measure was approved by a Senate Judiciary subcommittee, but Chairman Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, did to bring it up for debate in the full committee despite being a supporter.

“It’s a longshot … a heavy lift,” Wheeler said about the bill’s prospects, “but we have to keep the conversations going.”

Garrett agreed that winning passage will not be easy, but he noted there are several new members in the House and Senate whose stance on the issue is unknown.

“There are some people who, no matter what, will be against it,” Garrett said. “You can say that about a lot of bills. I’m not going to back off because of opposition. It’s a good bill and we should pass it.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; James.Lynch@TheGazette.com

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