GOP senators offer death penalty bill

Lethal Injection RoomBy Bob Eschliman


A group of Iowa Senate Republicans has sponsored a bill this week that would reinstate the death penalty, by lethal injection, under very specific circumstances.

Senate File 239, authored by state Sen. Jerry Behn (R-Boone) and co-sponsored by eight of his Republican colleagues, would provide for the death penalty only in cases of the multiple offense of first-degree murder, kidnapping, and sexual abuse committed upon the same victim who is a minor. The defendant must also be at least 18 years of age at the time the offense was committed.

“This bill further provides that in order to receive a sentence of death, the defendant … must not be mentally ill or intellectually disabled [IQ of 70 or less], and must have been a major participant in the commission of the crime or must have shown a manifest indifference to human life,” the bill’s explanatory statement reads.

Under the proposed legislation the trial jury, or the judge if there is no jury, must make specific findings and determine whether the jury believes the defendant should be put to death in a separate penalty proceeding held after the close of the trial.

For defendants who are indigent and charged with capital murder under the provisions of the SF 239, the payment of costs for two attorneys is authorized. And, the Iowa Supreme Court is required to establish standards of competency for counsel in death penalty cases.

The Office of State Public Defender is also tasked with establishing “teams of qualified lead and co-counsel for death penalty cases.” It is also charged with conducting or sponsoring specialized training programs for attorneys representing defendants who may be executed under the bill.

SF 239 provides that a death penalty may only be imposed if two questions are answered affirmatively:

  • Do the aggravating circumstances established beyond a reasonable doubt outweigh any mitigating circumstances that may exist?
  • Should the defendant should be sentenced to death?

The are a number of mitigating factors that may be considered when determining if the death penalty is to be imposed. They include:

  • the defendant was under the influence of an extreme mental or emotional disturbance;
  • the age of the defendant;
  • the defendant’s ability to appreciate the wrongfulness of the conduct due to mental disease but not to a degree to constitute a defense;
  • the defendant has no significant prior criminal history;
  • the defendant was under extreme duress;
  • the defendant did not directly commit the murder, kidnapping, and sexual abuse; and
  • the defendant’s character or record or the circumstances of the offense.

If a jury fails to agree unanimously on the required affirmative findings, the penalty imposed would be life imprisonment. Any death penalty sentence will be automatically reviewed by the Iowa Supreme Court, which must review the trial and judgment separately from the sentencing proceeding, and must examine whether the sentence is excessive or disproportionate to penalties in similar cases.

The proposed legislation also directs the Iowa Department of Corrections to adopt rules pertaining to executions. These must include rules pertaining to the witnessing of executions.

Under SF 239, any woman who is sentenced to death, but is pregnant when the warrant of execution is issued, is not to be executed until the person is no longer pregnant. A procedure is also provided to stay the execution of a condemned inmate who becomes insane after conviction but before execution.

The bill also includes provisions to protect state employees who conscientiously object to participating in executions.

A number of organizations have declared their opposition to the proposed legislation. They include the Iowa Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, Iowans Against the Death Penalty, the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, the Justice Reform Consortium, and the Iowa Catholic Conference.

The last execution in Iowa happened March 15, 1963, when Victor Harry Feguer, a federal inmate, was executed for a murder conviction. He also was the last federal inmate to be executed prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s moratorium following Furman v. Georgia.