Archive for Tuesday, December 5, 2000

Joan Finney left legacy of legalized executions

Former governor bowed to opinion of the people

December 5, 2000


— During her four years as governor, Joan Finney remained both a devout Catholic and an ardent populist. In 1994, when her personal religious beliefs and political philosophy didn't agree, her politics prevailed.

The state has a capital punishment law as a result. It's one of Finney's most important public policy legacies, but a strange one for a woman who opposes the death penalty.

Six years after the death penalty law was enacted, the Kansas Supreme Court is taking up the first case to reach it. The justices have scheduled arguments for 1:30 p.m. Wednesday in the appeal of Gary Wayne Kleypas, sentenced to die by chemical injection for the 1996 slaying of Carrie Williams in Pittsburg.

Kleypas and a few other convicted killers couldn't have been sentenced to death were it not for how Finney resolved the conflict between her personal beliefs and the politics that marked her 20-year career as an elected official.

"Joan Finney, in a very fundamental sense, put the value of popular opinion and her deference to popular opinion above other values," said Bill Rich, a Washburn University of Topeka professor who teaches constitutional law.

Rich, who opposes capital punishment, added: "It's an ordering of values that is different, but I think she was up front about it."

Historical record

Supporters of capital punishment struggled for 22 years to get a new law on the books, following the U.S. Supreme Court's historic 1972 case in Furman vs. Georgia. That ruling said all states' existing laws were unconstitutional; four years later, it declared new enactments in several states acceptable.

Democrat John Carlin had promised to permit the reinstatement of capital punishment during his 1978 campaign, but when the Legislature sent him a bill in 1979, he found that his personal beliefs wouldn't allow him to keep the pledge. He vetoed that bill and three others in eight years.

Republican Gov. Mike Hayden, elected in 1986, was a strong supporter of capital punishment, but bills he championed died in the Senate in 1987 and 1989. When he raised the issue in 1990 in his re-election race against Finney, she said she would bow to popular support for capital punishment and let a bill become law but without her signature.

Even her critics acknowledge she was being consistent. During 16 years as state treasurer, she'd become known for her old-style populist rhetoric. She advocated changes in the Kansas Constitution to allow Kansans to put initiatives directly on the ballot, an idea many legislators thought eccentric and out-of-date.

When she allowed the capital punishment bill to become law in 1994, Finney's statement was brief and to the point.

It began: "Today, I am keeping the promise I made to the people of Kansas when they elected me. I promised that I would not play a political game with this very serious issue."

Senate Majority Leader Tim Emert, R-Independence, said: "She pretty much did what she thought the people wanted."

In 1992, legislators had considered a proposal to reinstate capital punishment. But Democrats had a 63-62 majority in the House, and death penalty opponents had been more numerous there than in the past. The bill had died.

In that year's legislative elections, six Democratic representatives who opposed capital punishment, including House Speaker Marvin Barkis, had lost their seats. Supporters of the death penalty had a majority again.

But a bill didn't come up in 1993. Many legislators erroneously assumed Finney, given her opposition to capital punishment, would veto a bill. She publicly reminded them of her promise late in the year.

At the time, Sen. Mark Parkinson, R-Olathe, was considering whether he should make capital punishment his project for the 1994 session. Parkinson left the Senate in 1996 and is now state GOP chairman.

In 1993, Donald Ray Gideon, a convicted rapist on parole, had murdered Pittsburg State University Stephanie Schmidt in a case that received widespread attention, largely because her parents were determined that it not be forgotten.

"There was a heightened sort of emotion," Parkinson recalled. "Crime was THE issue."

Populist views

Parkinson thought he could shepherd a death penalty bill through the Legislature but said he had no idea what Finney would do. He met with her and discovered that she wasn't at all committed to vetoing a capital punishment bill, despite her personal beliefs.

"If she hadn't taken the position that she would let it become law without her signature, we wouldn't have pursued it," he said. "I would have found another project."

Once the bill passed, Finney remained determined to keep her promise. Rumors circulated that Catholic Church leaders, including Pope John Paul II, would contact her, but even the prospect of papal intervention didn't cause the governor to waver.

"Certainly, she would accept a call from the pope," Mary Holladay, her daughter and chief of staff, said at the time. "But it would not make her change her mind."

For Finney, it was simple: She had made a promise to respect the will of the people. She kept it, and Kansas has a capital punishment law because of it.

Some capital punishment opponents were dismayed, but others gave Finney credit for being true to her populist beliefs.

"She allowed her populist beliefs to override her personal beliefs, and that's admirable," Parkinson said.

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