Bucking Trend, Iowa Senator Seeks Death Penalty’s Return
By Jim Malewitz, Staff Writer
Following the kidnapping and murder of two young girls, an Iowa lawmaker wants to bring back the state’s long-abolished death penalty.
Senator Kent Sorenson Friday (January 25) unveiled wide-ranging legislation that would allow judges to apply the death penalty for people convicted of murdering and kidnapping or sexually assaulting the same child. Iowa abolished the punishment in 1965.
“This is something we need to enact to protect the children of our state,” Sorenson said at a news conference, according to the Associated Press.
The Republican was reportedly joined by six parents of missing and murdered children, including Heather and Drew Collins, whose 8-year-old daughter Elizabeth disappeared last July with her 10-year-old cousin, Lyric Cook. After a highly publicized search, their bodies were found last month in a wooded area of Waterloo, Iowa.
Sorenson’s effort comes as states are increasingly turning away from the death penalty, amid criticism that it fails to deter crime and that its decades-long appeals process is too costly.
Iowa is one of 17 states that bar the sentence, including five states — Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, New Mexico and Illinois — that have done so over the past five years. California, which has spent about $4 billion on its death penalty system since 1978, nearly joined that group in November, but voters narrowly thwarted a repeal campaign. And this year, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley is pushing legislation that would prohibit executions, spurring emotional debate in the legislature.
In most places that allow the punishment, it’s being used more sparingly. Just nine states executed death row inmates in 2012, and the number of new death sentences, at 78, was near the fewest since 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
“The death penalty appears to be an increasingly irrelevant component of our criminal justice system,” Richard Dieter, the center’s executive director told Stateline in December.
Despite backing from the families of several murder victims, Sorenson’s effort to buck that trend is a longshot to clear Iowa’s Democrat-controlled Senate. Rob Hogg, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee told the Associated Press that his panel won’t take up the proposal, saying that life in prison is an appropriately severe sentence and that officials should “focus all our resources instead on training law enforcement to solve the more than 150 unsolved murders we have in Iowa.”
Nevertheless, Sorenson said the bills have bipartisan support, and he will urge public hearings.
Sorenson’s legislation would also mandate the “chemical castration” for those convicted of serious sex crimes against children. The controversial — but reversible — method of chemically eliminating a prisoner’s sex drive is allowed in at least nine states, including Iowa, where it has not been used.
Louisiana was the most recent state to allow chemical castration, after Governor Bobby Jindal signed legislation into law in 2008. The Louisiana law also allows courts to order the physical castration of convicted sex offenders.