Iowa Senate panel advances death penalty legislation

A man lies in a prison cell. (Photo by Darrin Klimek/Getty Images)

Several crime victims and their advocates joined more than a dozen other Iowans who spoke Thursday against a legislative proposal to reinstate the death penalty in Iowa.

Clinton native Christy Wolfe’s two younger sisters, Susan and Sarah, were killed by a neighbor in Pittsburgh, Pa., in 2014.  She read a statement from their mother, who wrote that while Pennsylvania had the death penalty, the family was “relieved” when the jury did not impose it on the man convicted of the crime.

The statement continued:

“The murderer is in prison for life, without possibility of release, and our family is not subjected to years of further headlines and court hearings. There is no justice, no closure for families in seeing the murderer of their loved ones sit on death row. The average time before execution is 25 years and the cost to taxpayers for each case runs into the millions.”

Wolfe’s surviving sister, Mary, is a state representative from Clinton. The family has spoken out against the death penalty in recent years.

Patti McKee of Des Moines also described herself as a victim of violent crime. “I have had someone’s hands around my neck, squeezing my life’s breath out of me,” she said. “And had I died, it would have been to cover up another crime.”

She said she opposes the death penalty because “taking a life for a life doesn’t get us anywhere except a more violent society.”

Advocates for people with mental illness also spoke, citing the federal government’s execution this week of Lisa Montgomery, who had a long-standing history of mental illness.

They spoke during an online subcommittee meeting for Senate File 82, which would make the death penalty available for first-degree murder that also involves the kidnapping and sexual assault of a minor. The bill advanced from subcommittee on a 3-2 vote and is eligible for debate by the full Senate Judiciary Committee.

A similar bill was introduced in the Senate in 2019 and passed the Senate Judiciary Committee but did not reach the floor for debate.

Others who spoke Thursday included religious leaders, a representative of the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, and advocates for Black communities. Many of them argued that capital punishment is not a deterrent to violent crime, that it costs millions of dollars more than life imprisonment and that racial minorities, particularly Black men, are already disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system in Iowa.

The lone supporter of the legislation, Samuel Jones, pastor of the Faith Baptist Church in Hudson, Iowa, cited an Old Testament passage as religious support for the death penalty. “This bill is the least we could do let us have real justice … In fact, I would encourage you to take it a step further and fully institute the death penalty for any murder, any first-degree murder, in the state of Iowa.”

Bill sponsor Sen. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, who chaired the subcommittee, disputed those who cited studies that show the death penalty does not deter violent crime. “We hear all the time, the death penalty does not deter and we heard that a lot this afternoon. And there certainly are studies that say that. But there are also studies that say it does deter. And we don’t hear about them nearly as much,” Garrett said.

Garrett also said crime victims weren’t well-represented in the debate, despite hearing from several during the meeting. “I haven’t heard much discussion about the victims,” he said.

Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, supported the bill; Democratic Sen. Tony Bisignano of Des Moines opposed it.