Archive for Saturday, December 29, 2001

Courts struggle with ruling on death

December 29, 2001

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— Truman Capote, writing "In Cold Blood" about the 1959 murder of a Finney County farm family, noted the small number of condemned prisoners in Kansas, suggesting juries didn't like to impose the death penalty.

The state hasn't really embraced capital punishment during its history.

Kansas Atty. Gen. Carla Stovall, left, discusses her reaction to
the decision handed down by the Kansas Supreme Court Friday in
Topeka involving the Kansas v. Kleypas murder trial in Crawford
County. Kansas' death penalty law survived its first challenge when
the state Supreme Court upheld a killer's conviction and the
constitutionality of capital punishment.

Kansas Atty. Gen. Carla Stovall, left, discusses her reaction to the decision handed down by the Kansas Supreme Court Friday in Topeka involving the Kansas v. Kleypas murder trial in Crawford County. Kansas' death penalty law survived its first challenge when the state Supreme Court upheld a killer's conviction and the constitutionality of capital punishment.

A 1994 death penalty law lists only seven capital crimes. Six years passed before the case of Gary Wayne Kleypas reached the Kansas Supreme Court. Kleypas was sentenced to die by lethal injection for the 1996 killing of Carrie Williams in Pittsburg.

On Friday, the Supreme Court upheld the capital punishment law but struck down Kleypas' death sentence, sending that issue back to the trial court.

Both supporters and opponents of capital punishment have prevailed in the public debate at different times throughout the state's history.

Even now, some say the death penalty is a bad idea.

"It doesn't make our state safer, and it is a tremendous waste of state resources," said Donna Schneweis of the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

The state has executed 24 prisoners, all men. The state had no executions between 1870 and 1944, and the last ones, hangings, were in 1965.

Four took "a ride on the Big Swing" at the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing that year, including the "In Cold Blood" subjects, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, but also serial killers James Latham and George York.

Kansas ranks next to last among the 38 states in the number of death row prisoners only Wyoming with two has fewer. Leading the nation is California with 602 followed by Texas with 454.

The first recorded execution in America was 1608 when a man was executed in Jamestown colony, accused of being a spy for Spain.

Kansas had the death penalty after it entered the Union in 1861, but the Legislature abolished it in 1907, an event that death penalty opponents mark to this day.

Gov. Alf Landon persuaded the Legislature to enact a new capital punishment law in 1935, following a spate of bloody bank robberies. That law was doomed by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1972 declaring all states' existing capital punishment laws unconstitutional. The next 22 years were marked by repeated efforts by supporters to enact a new, constitutional death penalty law.

In 1976, the court approved new death penalty laws in Florida, Georgia and Texas, and held the death penalty itself as constitutional.

Until 1994, all efforts in Kansas were unsuccessful. Democratic Gov. John Carlin broke a campaign promise to let capital punishment be reinstated and vetoed four bills between 1979 and 1985.

The Senate twice rejected bills during the tenure of Republican Gov. Mike Hayden, a supporter of the death penalty.

In 1994, Democratic Gov. Joan Finney testified against death penalty legislation.

But she described herself as a Populist and promised to bend to public sentiment to let a death penalty bill become law without her signature. She said she was ending the political games legislators and others had played with the issue.

The law mandates separate jury deliberations for the guilt and penalty phases of the trial. Also, juries must consider aggravating and mitigating circumstances when deciding a death sentence.

There is an automatic appeal of conviction and sentence to the Kansas Supreme Court.

Kansas completed construction of its death chamber in the fall of 2001 at the Lansing Correctional Facility. Prisoners sentenced to death are kept at the El Dorado Correctional Facility until the week of execution is determined by the Kansas Supreme Court.

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