The School of Law and its Institute of Delaware Corporate and Business Law
welcomed Delaware Court of Chancery Chancellor Leo E. Strine Jr. to the Delaware campus Monday, Jan. 13 for a discussion of the death penalty.
Strine, who was recently nominated to be the next chief justice of the Delaware Supreme Court, spoke about the role of public officials in the administration of capital punishment. In the hour-long talk that was part of the Ruby R. Vale Distinguished Speaker Series, Strine explained he personally opposes the death penalty, but as a legal professional he has had to respect and carry out the law.
“I believe our society is wrong to descend to the murderous level,” he said. “It’s a controversial topic on which people of good faith passionately and fervently disagree.”
Strine currently leads the state’s preeminent trial court on matters of corporate law and equity, but he has had significant interaction with capital punishment matters. He was counsel to former Gov. Tom Carper and between 1993 and 1998 was called upon seven times to carry out the law. That meant for each of the executions the warden called him to ask “Mr. Strine, may we proceed?”
He recalled one execution – the 1996 hanging of murderer Bill Bailey – in which the prison had Bailey in place atop the gallows 15 minutes early, and Strine had to require Bailey be held there until it was 12:01 a.m., a requirement under the judicial order.
“The succeeding minutes were among the longest of my life. To his credit, Mr. Bailey made things as easy as possible on the prison officials, and stood with dignity and without struggle in the freezing night air on that shabby edifice of death and waited quietly to be dropped to a neck-snapping death,” Strine recalled. “Although I could not give any other instruction lawfully, I could not help feeling responsible for every extra agonizing second of anxiety, fear and anguish that every person on the top of that gallows experienced that evening.”
As chancellor, he sits on the Delaware Board of Pardons – a duty where he is authorized to “bring my own conscience and judgment to bear” on applications for mercy. In that role, after great thought, he voted to commute the sentence of murderer Robert Gattis, whose sentence was ultimately commuted by Gov. Jack Markell. Strine was also asked to sit specially on the Delaware Supreme Court in a death penalty appeal for a justice who was unavailable. In that case, he voted to uphold the sentence for Derek Powell, who killed a police officer.
“When public officials recognize their duty to fulfill their specific role and put that duty ahead of self -interest, they promote the public’s confidence and respect in their government, and thus in its legitimacy,” he said.
The law school opened the speaker series Oct. 28 with a talk by then Chief Justice Myron T. Steele
on issues of good faith in non-corporate business entities. The series is intended to bring judges, practitioners and other distinguished public servants to the law school to showcase their work and strengthen connections with the Widener community.
Widener Law is grateful to the Ruby R. Vale Foundation for its generous support of this speaker series.