Updated May 5, 2006 Compiled & written by Mike Fitzpatrick
Quest News Update
Reality Check: The Column
Death Penalty Advisory Vote JoinsQuest Home QNU Home
Civil Union Ban On November Ballot
Madison - The state Legislature decided May 4 to give voters a say on whether Wisconsin should lift its 153-year-old ban on the death penalty, the longest state ban on the practice in the nation.
The state Assembly narrowly approved a resolution to hold a statewide advisory referendum in the November 7 election asking voters whether they favor the death penalty in cases involving first-degree murder convictions backed up by DNA evidence.
The Assembly, controlled 59-39 by Republicans, voted 47-45 to approve the measure. Seven Republicans and 38 Democrats voted against the measure after an emotional and somber debate.
Democrats fumed that three Republican lawmakers who opposed the death penalty - Reps. Sheryl Albers of Reedsburg, Jerry Petrowski of Marathon and Judy Krawczyk of Green Bay - were asked to leave during the vote so it could pass without a majority.
“This is the most unbelievable and despicable maneuver in the 36 years that I’ve been here,” Rep. Marlin Schneider (D-Wisconsin Rapids) said. It was not immediately clear why the three were excused before the vote.
The Senate, which adopted a similar measure in March, would have to sign off on Assembly changes before the question would go on the ballot. The Senate could do so as early May 9 (after Quest goes to press).
Senate President Alan Lasee (R-De Pere), a longtime supporter of the death penalty, has pushed the referendum, saying overwhelming public support could spur lawmakers to pass legislation to reinstate the punishment.
“We’re asking the citizens of the state for some guidance on this social and moral issue,” Rep. Dean Kaufert, (R-Neenah) claimed.
But Democrats said the measure was an election-year stunt designed to boost Republican turnout as the GOP tries to unseat two Democrats - Gov. Jim Doyle and Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager. The death penalty question joins a vote to approve or reject constitutional amendment to ban civil unions gay marriage already on the ballot.
Rep. Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse) spoke of the murder of her parents in 1993 as she urged her colleagues to vote against the death penalty. “For some survivors of homicide the thought of executing someone adds to the pain,” she said. “Nothing gives me chills more than the thought of a carnival atmosphere that I would see surrounding executions.”
Rep. Bob Ziegelbauer (D-Manitowoc) pleaded with his colleagues not to schedule the referendum just weeks after Steven Avery stands trial in high-profile murder of a 25-year-old photographer. He said the referendum would create “a supercharged political environment” that would divide the community and put the victim’s family in the glare of publicity.
It would also inject the death penalty as an issue into the races for governor and attorney general. Doyle and Lautenschlager oppose the death penalty and their Republican opponents support it.
The mix of advisory and constitutional referendums on the same ballot may also cause further voter confusion, some opposing the civil union ban contend. Activists also concede the “double whammy”of conservative issues may drive up turnout among marriage and civil ban supporters.
Wisconsin banned capital punishment in 1853, the longest ban out of all 12 states that do not have it. The ban came amid outrage over the public hanging in 1851 of a man who had drowned his wife. The penalty had been allowed since Wisconsin was a territory in 1839 and continued after it gained statehood in 1848. Four murderers were believed to be executed.
Lawmakers have failed more than 20 times over the decades in attempts to reinstate the death penalty, despite polls that show more than 60% support the punishment.