Kansas reinstated capital punishment in 1994. Nine people currently sit on death row, but so far, not a single inmate has been executed. The fact that 20 years have gone by without a single execution has some lawmakers thinking of ways to speed up the appeals process. Other lawmakers say Kansas should just do away with the death penalty altogether. As KPR's Stephen Koranda reports, a Senate committee has now taken testimony on two very different death penalty-related bills.
The Senate Judiciary Committee heard emotional stories from people on both sides of the death penalty debate.
State Senator Greg Smith, an Overland Park Republican, told the committee that Kansas should keep capital punishment. He’s the father of Kelsey Smith, who was abducted and murdered in 2007.
“She was kidnapped, thrown into a car, brutally raped, brutally sodomized and strangled to death to a point to where her neck was cut into with her own belt. That was the instrument of her death. And that person should be able to live? I don’t think so,” says Smith.
Smith says he dreads hearings like this and calls the effort misguided, because it drags families back through the pain of their loved one’s death.
“And I blame you for that. Stay out of it. The people of Kansas have spoken through their elected officials. This is the law,” says Smith.
The issue, according to Smith, is a state court system that won’t let the sentences be carried out. Missey Smith, Kelsey’s mother, says the death penalty is an important tool for prosecutors. The threat of the death penalty helped secure a plea bargain for Kelsey’s killer, who was sentenced to life in prison without parole, instead of death.
“Our daughter’s killer pled guilty to be shown the mercy he didn’t show Kelsey. I don’t have to deal with him ever again. He would not have done that if he was facing life,” says Smith.
Critics of the bill also include people who have lost family members. Mary Head’s sister was murdered in 1984. That crime was never solved. Head, from Lawrence, says the more she has studied the death penalty system the more she believes it is broken and doesn’t serve the families of crime victims. She says there are better uses of the money than death penalty trials, which are generally more costly than other murder trials.
“Those resources could be reallocated towards solving unsolved cases and supporting the families of victims,” says Head.
For some people, the death penalty and wrongful convictions are intertwined. More than 100 people have been freed from death row nationwide because they were wrongfully convicted. Eddie Lowery was wrongfully convicted of rape in Kansas and spent a decade in prison for it. He says the legal system has flaws, and because of that the state should abolish the death penalty.
“If the flaws that invaded my case somehow make their way into a death penalty case, the state of Kansas could commit one of the greatest miscarriages of justice imaginable,” says Lowery
For others, this is an issue of morality. Former state legislator Anthony Brown, who is an abortion opponent, says all life has divine value. And Archbishop Joseph Naumann says the state does have the means to protect the public from criminals without resorting to the death penalty.
“This is a question of what is best, really, for our society. It’s a question of what kind of people we want to be, even when faced with these very dark evils,” says Naumann.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will now consider the legislation. The last time a bill to abolish the death penalty made headway in the Legislature was in 2010. It made it to the Senate floor where it failed on a tie vote.
The committee is also considering another very different bill aimed speeding up death penalty appeals. It would enforce limits on the length of court documents and set deadlines for the process to move forward. Votes on both bills could come next week.