Death penalty bill advances out of Iowa Senate subcomittee

Senate subcommittee voices support

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 — A Senate subcommittee voted 3-2 Monday to support reinstating a limited death penalty in Iowa after an hour-long debate of Biblical proportions. And there were indications the debate would become even more expansive if the issue progresses to the Senate floor.

Proponents and opponents alike used references from the Bible and religious doctrine to argue in favor of and against Senate Study Bill 3134, a measure designed to provide a limited deterrent in situations in which someone aged 18 or older kidnaps, rapes and murders a minor or kills a peace officer in the line of duty.

Under current Iowa law, criminals convicted of a Class A offense is sentenced to life in prison without parole, which Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller argued is “a de facto death sentence” in a statement read by a spokesman.

“Defendants convicted of first-degree murder in Iowa die in prison,” Miller said.

But Sen. Dan Dawson, R-Council Bluffs, said “there has to be a higher penalty” for perpetrators who commit heinous crimes for which they show no remorse and who continue to be a threat while they’re held in custody or prison.

Sen. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, who chaired the five-member subcommittee, said he is bothered that — without the threat of capital punishment — there is nothing to deter a perpetrator who kidnaps and rapes a minor from killing the victim to cover the crime and the absence of a death penalty almost is an incentive for murder.

“There needs to be something more,” Garrett said.

However, Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines, who also served on the five-member subcommittee and managed a death penalty bill in 1992 that failed to gain Senate approval, said the issue is too important to be rushed through the process during “funnel week” and will undergo considerable work if Republicans choose to move it forward this session.

“This is not the bill to rush,” Bisignano said in an interview. “I will do everything I can to slow the bill down so that people truly have the opportunity to understand what they’re voting for.”

If the bill does advance, Bisignano, an opponent of the legislation, said he would attempt to broaden it into a full-blown death penalty that would be fairer rather than a limited option.

He also would push for a requirement that the governor be present when a convicted person is executed, saying “if they’re the person signing the death warrant, then they’re the person who should witness the death, and if you don’t have the courage to do that, then that’s like hiring a hit man and then it becomes a political document.”

The bill calls for a two-tiered process whereby an accused perpetrator deemed mentally competent is tried before a jury or judge. If convicted of a capital offense eligible for the death penalty, a second, separate review would be conducted to determine if the person should be put to death via a lethal injection.

The bill has enough votes to advance in the Senate. The overall fate of the death-penalty issue, however, is uncertain given that a broader reinstatement bill has stalled in the House.

“I was hoping that we would wait for House action, which looks like there’s not going to be and, if not, I don’t understand why the Senate would want to waste the time and the energy that comes with that type of a bill,” Bisignano said.

Garrett said he expected the full Senate Judiciary Committee would take up the bill yet this week, given the Friday deadline for non-money bills to clear at least one standing committee in the House or Senate to remain eligible for consideration for session.

“We’ll see where it goes from here,” he said.

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