Seven Republicans in the Iowa Senate are backing bills that propose the reinstatement of Iowa's death penalty, with most pointing to the 2005 death of a 10-year-old girl from Cedar Rapids who was kidnapped and murdered as a reason.
Iowa abolished the death penalty in 1965. State law currently authorizes life sentences in prison for convictions of first-degree murder and the most serious cases of rape and kidnapping.
Sen. Jerry Behn, R-Boone, a lead sponsor of the legislation, said he wants to prevent future deaths like that of Jetseta Gage, who was abducted from her grandmother's residence nearly 12 years ago and was found slain the next day in a mobile home southwest of Iowa City. The girl had previously been a victim of sexual abuse.
Behn on Thursday introduced Senate File 335, which would reinstate the death penalty, but only for multiple offenses in which a minor was kidnapped, raped and murdered. His bill has five co-sponsors, including Sen. Brad Zaun of Urbandale, the chairman of the Iowa Senate Judiciary Committee, which would likely consider the measure.
A second death penalty bill, Senate File 336, sponsored by Sen. Rick Bertrand, R-Sioux City, would apply to the multiple offense of sexual abuse and first-degree murder of the same person.
Behn has introduced similar legislation in the past, but it appears to have a better chance of being debated this year with Republicans controlling both the Iowa House and Senate.
"We have a strange situation in Iowa," Behn said. "If you kidnap somebody, you can get life in prison. If you rape somebody, you can get life in prison. If you kill somebody, you get life in prison. So in effect, there is a perverted incentive to murder your victim so that nobody can testify against you."
Zaun told The Des Moines Register on Thursday he is open to considering Behn's bill in a Senate subcommittee and having a debate on the issue.
"I am not someone who is a proponent of the death penalty, per se, but in a particular case where a child is raped and killed, I support the death penalty," Zaun said.
Iowa's last execution was on March 15, 1963, at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison when Victor Harry Feguer, a federal inmate, was hanged for murder. Thirty-one states authorize the death penalty.
After the killing of Jetseta Gage, Roger Bentley of Brandon was found guilty of first-degree murder and kidnapping. He is serving a life sentence in Iowa's prison system. His brother, James Bentley, was subsequently convicted of sexually abusing Jetseta Gage, and he was also found guilty separately on federal charges.
Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, who served in the Iowa House when lawmakers debated the death penalty in the 1990s, said Thursday she would opposed efforts to reinstate capital punishment in Iowa.
"I believe that with our current law, you get a life sentence in Iowa and life means life. You will spend the rest of your life behind bars," Jochum said. "They can think about all the horrible things they did, and maybe someday they will see the light and ask for forgiveness."
In 2006, President George W. Bush signed "Jetseta's Bill" into law to strengthen penalties against sexual predators who assault and kill children. However, a death penalty provision was removed from the bill in Congress.
Source: The Desmoines Register, William Petroski, February 23, 2017
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