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Iowans Debate Death Penalty; Bill Stalls in the House

Joyce Russell/IPR
Rep. Steven Holt (R-Denison)

A debate on a bill to reinstate the death penalty for first degree murder in Iowa took an unexpected turn at the statehouse Thursday.

The legislator who agreed to manage the bill has concluded he can’t support it, and the bill will not advance in the Iowa House.     

My conclusion after researching this bill is not exactly what I expected. Rep. Steven Holt

As a death penalty supporter, Rep. Steven Holt (R-Denison) agreed to head a subcommittee for House Study Bill 569.

"I support the death penalty in theory and believe it is absolutely morally okay based upon my faith,” Holt said after hearing emotional testimony on both sides of the issue in a statehouse committee room.

But Holt went on to explain that there are problems with the “practical, fair, and prudent” application of the penalty.

For example, he became convinced that the death penalty is more expensive than life in prison; that it is not a deterrent to crime; and that it is unfairly applied.

“Statistics show without a doubt those of lesser means are more likely to receive the death penalty than are those with greater assets  and the ability to hire the best attorneys,” Holt said.  “So my conclusion after researching this bill is not exactly what I expected.”

Credit Joyce Russell/IPR
Clinton attorney John Wolfe, father of Rep. Mary Wolfe. Two of Rep. Wolfe's sisters were murdered in Pittsburgh four years ago.

Holt said he was also troubled by the prospect of an innocent defendant ending up on death row and executed.

Technically, Holt kept the bill alive by signing off on the subcommittee report so that it would advance to the House Public Safety Committee.  However, he made clear he would not be voting for the bill.

Following the hearing, Committee Chairman Rep. Clel Baudler (R-Greenfield), the author of the bill, said he did not have the votes for the bill in his committee, so it would not be advancing any further in the House.

"I got the result I wanted," Baudler said. "We had a very open discussion."

At the hearing, attorney John Wolfe of Clinton spoke against the bill. Wolfe is the father of Rep. Mary Wolfe (D-Clinton). Four years ago, two other daughters were murdered in Pittsburgh. Prosecutors sought the death penalty in the case, but the perpetrator is now serving life in prison.

“I will not condone, support, or in any way assist the state in deliberate destruction of life through reinstatement of the death penalty,” Wolfe said.

We have mixed feelings in our denomination. -Rev. David Martin

The evangelical organization The Family Leader provided Rep. Holt with a list of pastors to invite to the hearing.

Rev. David Martin of the Assembly of God Church in Marshalltown agrees with the death penalty in some cases.

“We have mixed feelings….in our denomination,” Martin said.

But the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa submitted a letter signed by 176 Iowa clergy who oppose the death penalty.   

Des Moines resident Patti McKee, who described herself as a victim of violent crime, spoke against the bill.

"The death penalty is just state-sponsored vengeance,” McKee said.   “It will put blood on my hands and that of every taxpayer in Iowa."

The death penalty is state-sponsored vengeance. -Crime victim Patti McKee

A more limited death penalty bill remains eligible for debate in the Iowa Senate.  The bill would apply to those found guilty of kidnapping, abusing and killing a minor.

Rep. Baudler said if that bill passes the full Senate, it may be considered in the House.

Baudler points to the 2005 case of Jetseta Gage, a 10-year-old Cedar Rapids girl who was kidnapped, raped and murdered.

"That perp does not have the right to live," Baudler said. 

The Iowa legislature voted to ban capital punishment in 1965.  In the mid-1990s, a bill to reinstate the death penalty narrowly passed the Iowa House, but was defeated in the state Senate.