DES MOINES -- Republicans on a Senate subcommittee on Thursday advanced legislation that would reinstate a limited death penalty for Iowans aged 18 or older who are convicted of kidnapping, raping and murdering a minor despite overwhelming opposition from people who spoke at the remote hearing.
“I am an advocate of the death penalty in appropriate situations, and I believe this would be a very appropriate situation,” said Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, who joined subcommittee Chairman Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, in voting 2-1 to forward Senate Study Bill 1004 to the full Senate Judiciary Committee.
“It’s a very limited bill. It only applies where someone has kidnapped, raped and murdered a minor,” Garrett said. “There are numerous safeguards in the bill.”
However, about 20 Iowans took turns offering reasons why capital punishment is not a cost-effective proposition when the state has scarce resources in the midst of a public health pandemic, clogs the justice system, fails to deter violent crime, has been applied in a racially disparate way and has sentenced to death people innocently accused of a heinous crime.
“We come with heavy hearts because our beloved Iowa is considering legislation we know to be wrong, immoral and contrary to the facts that have become so apparent across the nation,” said Connie Ryan, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa Action Fund.
“Please set aside SSB 1004 and vote no, and let’s move on to critical issues impacting everyday Iowans. Let’s do some good work together rather than sow division.”
Loxi Hopkins of Davenport expressed concern Iowa policymakers were considering “starting down this slippery slope” that won’t stop with limited application as currently proposed, while Indira Sheumaker worried that passage would be moving “100 percent backwards” and discourage people from wanting to live in Iowa at a time when the state is trying to attract and keep residents.
“We certainly agree it is the duty of the state to punish offenders and defend the public good, but we don’t believe it is necessary to take further life to accomplish that goal,” said Tom Chapman, executive director of the Iowa Catholic Conference. “We believe that state-sanctioned killing in this case does not deter or end violence but instead perhaps perpetuates the cycle of violence.”
Conversely, Samuel Jones quoted biblical scripture in favor of reinstating a death penalty last applied in Iowa in 1965, saying government has a role to bear the sword righteously.
“This bill is the least we could do to let us have real justice and not placing our perceived justice above actual objective justice that has been historically accurate and true of Western civilization,” Jones told the subcommittee members. “I speak in support of this bill. In fact, I would encourage you to take it a step further and to fully institute the death penalty for any first-degree murder in the state of Iowa.”
Jaylen Cavil, a Des Moines man involved with the Black Liberation Movement, called it “abhorrent and completely unjustifiable” for legislators to be considering the bill “today in these times specifically.”
“The state has no power and no authority to kill its own citizens, no matter what the crime is,” he said. “I don’t care about the scope of this bill and how many crimes it covers. Just the fact that this is being debated, and, if it were to be passed, it would open up a whole can of worms in this state that we would not get back from.
“I know the death penalty is racist. Who do you think will get killed when we institute a death penalty in this state? It will be Black Iowans, some of whom may be innocent. This is unconscionable. Please vote this down.”
Garrett said he was concerned that little of the focus during Thursday’s public comment was on the victim.
But Patti McKee said she was the victim of a violent attack and that she opposes capital punishment because it merely makes the government complacent in taking a life.
Christy Wolfe said her two younger sisters were murdered in Pennsylvania seven years ago, and her family was relieved when the jury returned a life prison sentence rather than imposing that state’s death penalty.
Subcommittee member Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines, said he managed a death penalty bill in 1994 that “failed miserably,” but proponents keep bringing the issue back in “mutated” forms in hopes of finding “the right recipe” for those who find it to be unacceptable.
He questioned why majority GOP senators were pushing the issue when Gov. Kim Reynolds did not include it in the 2021 agenda she laid out earlier this week that instead called for criminal justice reforms.
Senate Democratic Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, said the death penalty “is a partisan issue and for them to bring that forward as their first piece of legislation in the middle of a pandemic is disappointing.”
Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said it still hasn’t been decided whether the Iowa Senate will have a death penalty floor debate this session.
“We haven’t done a vote count on that bill,” he said. “I know it’s a bill that’s been around for several years. We’ve had subcommittees in the past on that. It’s never got a floor vote to this point. We’re going to let the process work there.”
Earlier in the day, Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott, D-Windsor Heights, a Senate newcomer, told her colleagues that Iowans raised concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic about needs for food, child care, jobs and keeping their businesses open.
“Constituent after constituent was asking why can’t I get a COVID test, why do the results take so long, when will I get a vaccine? Never in those thousands of conversations did anyone ever say what their family needed the most at this time was to reinstate the death penalty,” she said.
“Yet despite the significant, pressing, devastating challenges that the people of Iowa face right now that they need a remedy to right now, four days into the session this is what we focus our energy on? The only thing that we should be focusing on putting to death is this virus.”
In a separate floor speech, Sen. Zach Whiting, R-Spirit Lake, said majority Republicans are focused on a “hopeful, uplifting, positive, forward-thinking conservative agenda” while Democrats are hoping to create distractions with their political “sideshows.”
“We are plowing full-steam ahead to implement a bold, conservative agenda for Iowa, and we won’t quit,” he said.