DES MOINES — Iowa would become the first state to reintroduce the death penalty since New York did in 1995 if legislation filed last week becomes law.
The abduction and slaying of 8-year-old Elizabeth Collins and her 10-year-old cousin Lyric Cook-Morrissey this summer in Evansdale gave capital punishment advocates the resolve to try, once again, to reintroduce it to Iowa where it was abolished in 1965.
Elizabeth’s parents, Heather and Drew, joined with conservative state Sen. Kent Sorenson, R-Milo, and the parents of other missing and murdered children at a pair of Statehouse news conferences announcing their intention to push for its reinstatement.
They also met with Gov. Terry Branstad, who indicated he would sign a bill that brought the death penalty back in limited circumstances.
But enthusiasm in both the House and the Senate seems muted at best. The majority Senate Democrats said there’s no interest in the bill, and it won’t make it to the floor for a vote. House Speaker Kraig Paulsen,
R-Hiawatha, indicated it’s not a top priority for the House if the Senate is not going to act.
“Discussion on the death penalty is taking place in the Senate. If they send a bill over, we’re obviously going to take a look it,” he said.
In 2007, New York abolished the death penalty again. Four other states — Illinois, Connecticut, New Jersey and New Mexico — have done so since.
In all, 17 states have abolished the death penalty, and 33 have it, although it is used with varying degrees of frequency.
Kansas, for example, last executed an inmate in 1965, while the most recent execution in Texas occurred on Nov. 15, 2012. A woman, Kimberly McCarthy, was scheduled to die in Texas last week, but her execution was stayed until April.
A Pew Research poll released last year showed that 62 percent of Americans support the death penalty. That’s less than the 78 percent who supported it in the mid-1990s, but much higher than the mid-1960s when less than 50 percent of Americans supported capital punishment, according to Pew.
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said there are at least a dozen bills to reintroduce the death penalty in statehouses across the country, but he’s skeptical any will be successful. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit doesn’t advocate for or against capital punishment and tracks state-by-state data.
“The trend in recent years has been toward abolishing the death penalty,” Dieter said. “The states that have abolished it do usually put in strict alternatives, like life without the possibility of parole. New York didn’t have life without parole until they abolished (the death penalty).”
Greg Heartsill, a Republican from Melcher-Dallas, said he will push a bill in the Iowa House to reinstate the death penalty.
“I don’t care about the trends. I’m not trendy,” he said. “This is not just a matter of justice for the victims’ families, it’s about putting another tool in the toolbox of law enforcement, because the death penalty has been used as a huge bargaining chip.”
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Sorenson’s bill would allow a death sentence in cases in which someone commits a murder and either first-degree kidnapping or first-degree sexual abuse, or both, against the same victim who is a minor.
He said he’s keying on state Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Cedar Falls, who is from the area where the cousins were abducted and killed, as a potential ally to get traction in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Danielson said he’s spoken to Sorenson about a bill that would set up a system notifying hunters when children go missing, but he’s not interested in a capital punishment bill.
“My position is pretty clear: I’m morally opposed to capital punishment,” he said “We have the death penalty in Iowa. It is if you commit a heinous crime, you go to jail and die there.”
Meanwhile, the families of the victims say they’re starting a grassroots effort to apply pressure to lawmakers.
Drew Collins said the families who are connected through the tragedy launched a Facebook group last week called “Enough is Enough” that supports reintroduction of the death penalty in Iowa. The Collins’ own web page, where they once posted reward amounts for information that led to the safe return of their daughter and niece, will soon host petitions to reintroduce the death penalty to Iowa. That web page can be found at www.picbadges.com/badge/2652852/#.
“When we abolished the death penalty in 1965, there might have been more reason to believe there might be false convictions,” Drew Collins said. “But now we have the technology to eliminate that. We have a 1965 law in 2013. It’s time to change.”