DOVER — Kimberly Mascheri and Joy Hill thought they had won a victory when the death penalty repeal bill was not released from committee Wednesday. Then they heard the sponsor planned to suspend the rules in an effort to bring it to the floor.
“This can forever change how legislation is established on the books in Delaware,” Ms. Mascheri said.
Whereas most of the vocal advocates speaking on Delaware’s death penalty have been promoting repeal, Ms. Mascheri and Ms. Hill are on the opposite side. They’ve also got a personal stake in it.
The two sisters are carrying on a family legacy of fighting for the death penalty, and they testified at the House Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday along with their brother, Greg Whaley.
The siblings are the grandchildren of Lorenzo and Mamie Whaley, who were killed on Oct. 31, 1961 in their Laurel home.
Kermit West, age 23 at the time, raped and murdered 66-year-old Mamie Whaley and then fatally shot 72-year-old Lorenzo Whaley. He was arrested shortly afterward. West had previously served time for robbing the couple’s home, and authorities alleged he sought revenge for being sent to prison.
In the aftermath, family members fought for the reinstatement of the death penalty, which had been abolished in 1958. The Legislature passed a bill overturning the removal in 1962, despite the veto of Gov. Elbert Carvel.
West ended up serving life in prison despite 17 failed parole hearings. He died in 2013.
The death penalty should remain as an option for the most violent criminals, Ms. Mascheri believes. The family has resisted several pieces of legislation over the years that would have potentially opened the door for convicted felons to be released, providing pivotal testimony on occasion, she said.
“I am a part of the continuing legacy my family has in Delaware legislation to see that no family has to endure what was wrought upon ours with the heinous rape and murder of my grandparents, Lorenzo and Mamie Whaley,” Ms. Mascheri said in a letter recently sent to all 41 representatives. “It is my father and his brothers’ work in 1961 that is responsible for Delaware’s reinstatement of the death penalty.
"It is my father and brother’s testimony before the Senate in 2007 that caused the Delaware Supreme Court to override legislation that was going to release of 198 violent criminals into society. It is I and my sister’s testimony before the state Senate in 2010 that preserved the Board of Parole.”
They have redoubled their efforts since Wednesday’s hearing. Not only do they object to the possible repeal of capital punishment, the descendants of Lorenzo and Mamie Whaley are angered by comments from Rep. Sean Lynn, D-Dover. Rep. Lynn, the main House sponsor of the bill to abolish the death penalty, said he plans to suspend the rules, possibly as soon as today. Doing so would be going against the wishes of Speaker of the House Peter Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, an avowed opponent of not following the typical procedure.
Calling for a suspension of the rules would set a dangerous precedent, Ms. Hill said.
“We can be Democratic, we can be Republican, we can be right, we can be left, but at the end of the day, the vote, if it’s done in a proper way, should have the ability to stand in a proper way and not be manipulated, not be stolen because ‘I don’t like the way it turned out,’” she said.
They believe Rep. Lynn is being pressured by a “national liberal agenda.” Some of the speakers in favor of repeal Wednesday included members of interstate organizations.
The death penalty is a divisive issue, not falling neatly along any lines. Family members of murder victims testified both in favor of and against repeal at the hearing.
Along with other opponents of the bill, the Whaley grandchildren rejected arguments capital punishment is a civil rights issue.
“Violent and heinous crimes will always exist in society, because God has given man free will,” Ms. Mascheri said at the hearing, reading from her letter while fighting back tears. “Those who are sentenced to death have committed crimes that are unfathomable and are guaranteed rights that the U.S. Supreme Court has set forth for all states having the death penalty. A criminal on death row will have the opportunity before death to repent, seek forgiveness for their crimes and make things right with their creator, an opportunity not afforded by their victim.”