My Brother Was Brutally Murdered, But the Delaware Supreme Court’s Decision to Ban the Death Penalty Was the Right One

As the sister of a murder victim who opposes the death penalty, the Delaware Supreme Court’s decision in early August declaring the state’s death penalty statute unconstitutional gives me hope. The court’s decision affirms what death penalty opponents have known all along: Delaware’s death penalty doesn’t achieve justice for many reasons.

The death penalty not only violates the rule of law, but it is costly, biased, prone to error, and ineffective at reducing violent crime and healing communities. Delaware’s statute, however, was particularly flawed. It had allowed a jury to recommend death without getting the approval of all 12 jurors, and it had allowed the judge in a capital case to override the jury’s sentencing recommendation to not put the convicted to death. Because the Delaware scheme diluted the historic role of a unanimous jury in criminal proceedings — to the point of denying capital defendants their constitutional right to a jury trial — the court struck it down.

I joined the death penalty abolition movement in Delaware in 2001, having learned from personal experience that the death penalty is a false promise for victims’ families. In 1995, my 22-year-old brother David and four of his friends were brutally murdered in Connecticut. David shared a house with three of his friends, and a fourth was visiting. They were murdered by their landlord, who then burned down the house to hide the evidence. David had to be identified by dental records.

Prosecutors sought the death penalty. Our families had no say in that decision. Seeking the death penalty meant that it took longer for the case to go to trial. Three long years of legal limbo before the trial started in order to create a case that would support the death penalty. Midway through the trial, the death penalty was dropped. Again, our families had no say.

Looking back, I expect it was a legal strategy to ensure a win. Prosecutors did win the case, and the man who killed my brother received a sentence of life without parole, which satisfied me that he would not kill again. By then I knew that the death penalty was a false promise and that life without parole was justice enough for me.                                                                                  
In the 21 years since my brother’s murder, through my own experience and by studying the death penalty and the needs of victims, I have learned that the death penalty has very little to offer victims’ family members. It doesn’t give us a voice. It doesn’t try to restore us. We are excluded from decisions made on our behalf. The death penalty aims our attention at the person who hurt us the most. It immerses us in gruesome details so that we are re-traumatized. It tells us the cruel lie that both our own healing and the value of our loved one are dependent on the fate of the killer.

My healing journey has had less to do with the final legal fate of my brother’s killer than with my own path. I went to counseling where I could share my story and express all the anger and sadness and fear in my heart. I joined abolition and victim support groups, such as Delaware Citizens Opposed to the Death Penalty, the Delaware Repeal Project, and Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation. I began sharing my story in public. I became a clinical social worker. I eventually assumed leadership roles in Delaware Citizens Opposed to the Death Penalty. In short, I reclaimed my power.

Since beginning death penalty abolition work, I can’t count the number of times I have heard death penalty supporters say, “We do it right in Delaware.” The recent Delaware Supreme Court decision that the statute is unconstitutional confirms that Delaware doesn’t “do it right.”  

Not unexpectedly, in response to the Delaware Supreme Court decision, 15 Delaware state legislators have vowed to try to create a new death penalty statute when the General Assembly reconvenes in January. For too long, legislators have been willing to sacrifice the rule of law to try to execute just a few whose victims they deem worthy of this particular punishment.

I want our legislators to stop supporting the death penalty and start supporting murder victims’ family members, all murder victims’ family members. No matter how much some try to “fix” the statute, if our goals are accountability for those who kill, safety for our communities, and healing for victims’ families, then the death penalty will never be the right choice.

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Anonymous

The death penalty does a service to society. It rids us of those that are not worthy of life.

Anonymous

Just posting to say that most people who read this article will not agree with this sentiment.

The death penalty is an archaic practice from a simpler time of moral justice. We as humans are in the process of moving past emotional politics--we are learning that the death penalty can be impractical. We are realizing that too often we accidentally sentence to death innocent men. And we are grasping the economic and emotional pros and cons of the death penalty, which allows us to realize it has done more harm than good.

Author--please do not be discouraged by the comments of an angry, simplistic, vocal minority. Your story is meaningful and more people will understand this wisdom because of the cause you fight for.

David

The death penalty is immoral. Murder is murder regardless of who commits it. State sanctioned murder puts blood on all of our hands. Life in prison without possibility of parole rids the public of those not worthy of walking freely among us and leaves open the possibility of reversal when new evidence comes to light that exonerates the falsely accused. Capital punishment will not bring back our lost loved ones. It's barbaric. It's about revenge, not justice, and has no place in a civilized society.

Anonymous

Honestly, I think that it should be up to the families of the victims. Even though I would want the death penalty for someone who killed my family member, I understand that other people, like the author, wouldn't want that.

True American

I get a kick out of the second commentator who tells the author not to be discouraged by an angry minority. Obviously your as idiotic as the author because a majority of Americans still support the death penalty. Its called justice. You take a life then you give up your right to live.

The reason death penalty cases take so long is because radical left wing liberals have gone to court to put barriers up to protect these scumbags. But I guess to ignorant liberals like the Aclu and commentators who are afraid to put their name with their comments that is to complicated to understand because they care more about their own self righteousness than victims families. Grow up you idiots and lets execute these murderers.

By the way you radical mad dog liberals don't mind killing an innocent baby in the womb but you will protect a first degree murderer. Liberalism is a mental disorder for sure.

Anonymous

Nothing funnier than a Nazi using a pseudonym rails on others for not using their real names.

ROFLMFAO!!!!

This article made me think, it really struck a chord. Particularly, the parts about state sanctioned murder. The state should never be permitted to murder any citizen, regardless their crime. It's the ultimate denial of the right to life.

The blood IS on all our hands.

Anonymous

Unfortunately, once the harm is done you can not reverse it. I wish there could be a way to remove the pain the victims relatives feel. Executing the accused can not accomplish the end to that means. They still suffer and the victim is still gone. There is no reversing it. The criminals murder regardless of the punishment. They always have and always will. Either my insanity, that can't be changed or by accident that always can happen, and by passion crimes that will always occur, and by evil bastards. And they do not care. These things always has and always will continue. Gang members will not stop because of the death penalty. Their breeding ground promotes it and it is part of what they live like in the gang world. They give it no thought. It will never deter them. They will only find out too late and some who are scared, that it, all you get out of it. Is that what you want. To scare some who are already done with the deed. Then it's useless to execute them. You wont stop anything with the death penalty. Have you yet? They die in jail anyway. Once you catch them that is it. Now if it make you feel better to execute them, probably you have never been associated with a victim or criminal involved and you just want to put your two cents worth in. You might be self righteous and thing you got it figured out. You may forget how God forgave you of all your crap. A lot of what you do with no reprimand today, in Roman times you would be executed for then. I no I no, you should have free speech and complain why your tax dollars are being wasted. Right? The taxes you may have cheated the IRS on possibly. I wounder how many have not payed their share yet complain about how their taxes are spent. Hey in the good old days the tax collector use to come and if you did not pay what happen, under the Emperors rule? Now sure anyone would protect their family at the moment someone tries to harm them, but the death penalty phase, it's to late then. Unfortunately it's already over. Listen these criminals really are to stupid for the most part to ever figure out that their actions may end up causing the execution of themselves. So if you know this and still support the death penalty, fine. Just say you don't care. But don't use the country or some invisible veil to hide what kind of person you really are. You no it's socially unexceptionable to want to execute people, and you can only freely discuss that with like minded people because you no others would look at you like that is horrible right? The death penalty executes people and sometimes they are innocent also. Sometimes they just get it wrong. Easy for us to say hey, gas them, hang them high. But what about the poor sole who may not be there yet, and the ones already gone. Take the chance? It's your call. Hey, maybe you should go to work for the corrections dept. if you think it is so fine. Try a new career executing them. Then right a book and let us no if you really think it's fine. If you did still support it, would that mean you really enjoyed it? Can you really mean it was just the right thing to do. Maybe or maybe you just really like to do it. Says something about you. May not sound so proper or religious but at least you can say you got revenge. That's all it is and nothing else. We all just need to think about that and all the scenarios. Before we are so quick to judge. It is easy for everyone to say things quickly. But once the execution is complete, there is no turning back.

Anonymous

The only problem I have with LWOP is that the sentence can always be overturned or commuted.

Anonymous

The death penalty is not "murder", murder is unlawful killing and an execution is considered legal state sanctioned homicide and not murder. Just clearing things up.

Anonymous

AMEN!

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