Key Republicans say they’ll again push for a vote on the death penalty during the next session of the Iowa Legislature, which begins in January. At least two members of a legislative committee plan to bring the issue up at their meeting next Wednesday.
The state outlawed capital punishment in 1965, but Senator Jeff Angelo, a Republican from Creston, says recent crimes against children have Iowans rethinking that. “There are a lot of folks (who) say to us, you know, given the monstrosity of the some of the crimes that we’re seeing, they believe that (the death penalty) may be justifiable,” Angelo says. “I think it’s even given death penalty opponents some pause when you think about some of the crime that we’ve seen.”
This past spring after the kidnapping, rape and murder of nine-year-old Jetseta Gage of Cedar Rapids — allegedly at the hands of a convicted sex offender — a few Republicans in the Senate proposed a limited death penalty that would apply in such child murder cases, but the Senate Democratic Leader refused to allow a vote on the proposal.
The 50-member Iowa Senate’s split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, so Republicans like Angelo would need to change the mind of that Democrat Leader to get a death penalty bill passed in the Senate. “I think that there are enough conservative Democrats to get us to 26 (votes to pass the bill),” Angelo says. “I would like to see the political pressure build to bring (the death penalty bill) to a vote.”
But Senate Democratic Leader Michael Gronstal of Council Bluffs says he will continue to block a vote on the death penalty. Gronstal says Republicans are “disingenuous” because Republicans held control of the Iowa Senate for eight years, and never passed the death penalty when they had a Republican Governor — Terry Branstad — who would have signed it into law. Current Governor Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, would veto any death penalty bill that reaches his desk. “They’re shifting into full political mode,” Gronstal says. “The only time Republicans really care about the political death penalty is…in election years.” Gronstal accuses Republicans of “using” a tragedy for political gain. “I think that’s the worst kind of politics,” Gronstal says. “Taking an incredible tragedy like this and just playing politics with it when they know full well it won’t pass the House, the Senate, or the governor won’t sign it.”
Republicans, though, intend to campaign against Democrats who have opposed the death penalty as they believe a majority of Iowans support it. The trial of the man accused of sexually molesting Jetseta Gage is scheduled to start in January, and Roger Bentley, that man’s brother, is the one accused of kidnapping, raping and killing the girl after his brother was accused of molesting Jetseta.