House lawmakers voted Tuesday to reinstate Delaware's death penalty amid an outcry over the killing of a correctional officer during a prison riot in February and the fatal shooting of a state trooper two weeks ago.
The bill passed the Delaware House on a 24-16 bipartisan vote and now goes to the Senate.
The legislation easily cleared the House despite arguments from opponents that capital punishment is not a deterrent to crime, is too costly, is applied in a racially biased manner against blacks and other minorities, and is morally wrong.
"You are affirmatively voting to kill people in the state of Delaware," Rep. Sean Lynn, a Dover Democrat, told colleagues before the roll was called.
Lynn, who has led the legislative fight against restoring the death penalty, said he was worried lawmakers' emotions would influence their decision and asked his colleagues to "appeal to reason."
Democratic Gov. John Carney has said he supports the state Supreme Court ruling last August declaring Delaware's death penalty law unconstitutional, but he has not promised to veto legislation reinstating capital punishment. Carney has not taken a public position on the pending legislation but has not ruled out supporting the death penalty for those convicted of killing a member of law enforcement.
Under the bill, jurors would have to find unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant should be executed. A judge would have to agree with the jury in order for the death penalty to be imposed but would have the discretion to sentence a defendant to life in prison even if the jury found that the death penalty was warranted.
A majority of state Supreme Court justices declared Delaware's death penalty law unconstitutional last year because it allowed judges too much discretion and did not require that a jury find unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant deserves execution.
That ruling came after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida's death sentencing law, which was similar to the one in Delaware.
Representatives of the law enforcement community have voiced overwhelming support for the bill.
Correctional officer Steven Floyd was killed in February when inmates took over a building and seized hostages at Vaughn Correctional Center, setting off an 18-hour standoff at Delaware's maximum-security prison. The siege ended when tactical teams used a backhoe to breach the building and rescue a female counselor. Two other guards had been released earlier after being tormented and beaten by inmates.
Delaware State Police Cpl. Stephen Ballard was shot April 26 while investigating a suspicious vehicle at a convenience store in northern Delaware. His killer, Burgon Sealy Jr., then barricaded himself in his family home, firing shots at officers during a 20-hour standoff before he was fatally shot.