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.