Death penalty on ballot
Senate agrees to advisory referendum in November
By STACY FORSTER
Madison - Voters in the November election will be asked whether Wisconsin should reinstate the death penalty, after action Tuesday by the state Senate.
The Senate voted 18-15 to agree with changes made by the Assembly earlier this month and send the issue to voters on Nov. 7, rather than the September primary as called for in an earlier version of the measure.
Those who backed the resolution to ask voters about capital punishment for certain crimes said it is important to allow residents a chance to weigh in on an important issue at a time when there is likely to be the greatest turnout. But opponents dismissed the resolution as a political ploy.
The advisory referendum question will be on ballots along with races for governor, attorney general and other state officials, as well as a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage and substantially similar relationships, such as civil unions.
Because of the large number of important races and issues, voters won't have a chance to participate in a full debate on the death penalty, said Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton).
"The only thing missing from the ballot this fall is flag desecration and guns," Erpenbach said. "It's the political equivalent of a Hail Mary."
The death penalty vote also will play out at the same time as the trial of Steven Avery, scheduled to begin Oct. 16. In 2003, Avery was released from prison after being wrongfully convicted of a sexual assault but has since been charged in the death of Teresa Halbach.
But Sen. Alan Lasee (R-De Pere), who has been pushing for the death penalty for more than 30 years, said he drafted the advisory referendum proposal in early 2005 with the intent of getting input from constituents. "It's time for people to have their say on this important issue," Lasee said.
The question, which won't be binding, will read: "Should the death penalty be enacted in the State of Wisconsin for cases involving a person who is convicted of first-degree intentional homicide, if the conviction is supported by DNA evidence?"
The referendum question wouldn't affect Avery because the harshest penalty Wisconsin defendants now face is life in prison.
Wisconsin has not had capital punishment since 1853.
The Senate initially passed a similar resolution in March on a 20-13 vote, but that version would have put the question on September primary election ballots.
Earlier this month, the Assembly voted 47-45 to put the question to voters, but shifted the referendum to the November ballot and eliminated the word "vicious" to describe crimes eligible for the death penalty.
Senators engaged in a three-hour debate Tuesday about the application and cost of the death penalty. "All we're trying to do is give people the opportunity to tell us what they believe," said Sen. Cathy Stepp (R-Sturtevant). "What are we so afraid of?"
But by leaving tough issues to a referendum, lawmakers aren't taking care of their responsibilities, some opponents said. "They spoke when they sent us here," Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) said of voters. "We represent them."
Opponents also questioned how much lawmakers would learn from such an advisory referendum.
"It would only serve as an emotional diversion from some of the other important issues people are talking about," said Senate Democratic Leader Judy Robson of Beloit. "The referendum is less about learning about the will of the people and more about the desire to inflame."
Opponents also questioned such reliance on DNA evidence. If tainted or mishandled, it could result in a wrongful conviction and execution, said Sen. Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay).
Sen. Dave Zien (R-Eau Claire) said it is important to get voters'
opinions on record to provide better information on the issue if lawmakers ever decide to introduce legislation on the death penalty.
"I want to know what parts of the state are going to be very much in favor and which won't," Zien said, adding that he believes the death penalty is a deterrent to those who might commit a violent crime.
Polls show the idea has popularity among Wisconsin residents. A March
29 to April 7 survey by the St. Norbert College Survey Center and Wisconsin Public Radio asked 400 respondents whether they favored language similar - but not identical - to what would be in the referendum.
Nearly two-thirds - 61% - said they supported it, while 33% were opposed, 5% were not sure and 1% refused to answer the question. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.