Lawmaker says he’ll introduce death penalty bill

DES MOINES – A Republican lawmaker was backed by the parents of children slain or missing as he called Friday for the reinstatement of Iowa’s death penalty.

Milo Sen. Kent Sorenson announced he would introduce a measure that would establish capital punishment for the first time since the 1960s. The death penalty would be limited to people convicted of first-degree murder in which a victim was kidnapped or sexually abused or if the victim was a child.

“This is something we need to enact to protect the children of our state,” Sorenson said.

The bill will go to the Senate Judiciary Committee, but Chairman Rob Hogg said the panel won’t take up the proposal. Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, said life in prison is a severe penalty and that the state should “focus all our resources instead on training law enforcement to solve the over 150 unsolved murders we have in Iowa.”

Among the six parents standing with Sorenson were Heather and Drew Collins, whose daughter Elizabeth was killed after disappearing last July with her cousin, Lyric Cook. Their bodies were found in a wooded area in December.

Asked about the likelihood that no action will be taken on the death penalty bill, Drew Collins said, “It makes me sick that this is not open for debate.”

Sorenson said he hasn’t given up on the bill, arguing there is bipartisan support for the proposal and that he would urge House and Senate leaders to allow public hearings.

Iowa repealed capital punishment in 1965. State law allows life sentences for convictions of murder and the most serious cases of sexual assault and kidnapping.

The last concerted effort to reinstate the death penalty came as part of Gov. Terry Branstad’s campaign platform in his 1994 run for governor. The House approved a capital punishment bill but it died in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said the governor still supports the death penalty in limited cases and will give Sorenson’s bill consideration should it reach his desk.

Parents at the news conference said Iowa’s current law doesn’t give criminals a reason to keep their victims alive. They said a death penalty could make people think twice before killing someone.

“Will this stop abductions? No. But it may stop someone from killing a child,” said Noreen Gosch.

Her son, Johnny, disappeared in 1982 while delivering newspapers in West Des Moines and has never been found.

Adonis Hill, whose 13-year-old daughter Donnisha was killed in 2006, demanded change in the death penalty law. Donnisha stepped off her school bus at the wrong stop, then was taken to Illinois and killed.

“These perpetrators need to be done away with,” Hill said. “Change is now. It’s not yesterday. It’s not tomorrow. We need to get this bill passed.”

Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Cedar Falls, said statistics have indicated capital punishment doesn’t deter killings, and he argued Iowa’s current law is as tough as the death penalty.

“Iowa has a death penalty,” Danielson said. “It’s called life in prison without parole.”

The cost of prosecuting death penalty cases makes them difficult for governments, said Andrea Lyon, an Illinois death penalty defense lawyer. She noted that one reason Illinois abolished capital punishment two years ago was because it cost the state so much to prosecute.

“The cost to try, convict and imprison someone for life is a quarter of what it costs to give them the death penalty,” she said.