Archive for Sunday, January 19, 2003

Kansans pay high price for death penalty, opponents say

State groups seek moratorium after Illinois sentences commuted

January 19, 2003


— Death-penalty opponents in Kansas often have talked about the moral cost that society pays for condemning people to die.

And they have an additional argument -- the economic costs.

Death-penalty cases are expensive budget-busters that suck money from needed programs at a time when the state is scrambling to pay for basic services, they argue.

Referring to an ongoing death-penalty case, Donna Schneweis, coordinator of Kansas Death Penalty Abolition, said, "We're going to be paying for trial and litigation for years, spending millions of dollars to kill one man. Where is the common good here? Are we paying for safety or revenge?"

Encouraged by re-evaluation of the death penalty in several states, Schneweis and other opponents are calling for a moratorium on death sentences in Kansas. It would have a big impact in Douglas County, where prosecutors seek the death penalty against Damien Lewis, accused in the double slaying last year of George "Pete" Wallace and Wyona Chandlee in their east Lawrence home.

"The experiment is over, the system is busted. Let's quit the charade and provide public safety in a responsible manner," Schneweis said.

Kansas has a viable alternative to execution, she said -- the so-called "Hard 50" sentence of 50 years in prison without parole.

Bargaining tool

Not so fast, say some lawmakers.

Sen. Ed Pugh, R-Wamego, vice chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he was not a strong supporter of the death penalty but added, "There are some cases so shocking, so horrifying, I think it should be imposed."

He conceded that Kansas' death-penalty statute was complicated to the point of being "almost unusable." But while it might cost millions of dollars to prosecute and defend death-penalty cases, Pugh noted, the threat of the death penalty could persuade a defendant to plead guilty in exchange for what amounts to a sentence of life in prison.

Still, some lawmakers and state officials want an assessment of the costs of seeking the death penalty versus the cost of life in prison.

"It's worth a review," said Pat Scalia, executive director of the State Board of Indigents' Defense Services, which is the agency that provides the right to counsel for defendants charged with felonies who cannot afford their own attorney. The agency is broke because of a collision of state budget cuts and unprecedented costs of two recent death-penalty trials, Scalia said.

"We have run out of money paying attorneys' fees and experts' fees and other costs," she said.

The trial of Reginald and Jonathan Carr in Wichita, convicted in the brutal slayings of five people, has cost the agency $1.3 million, and the trial of John E. Robinson Sr. in Johnson County, convicted in connection with the murders of three women, cost $1.1 million. Neither case has even started what is likely to be years of court appeals. And those costs don't include how much it costs to prosecute the cases.


Scalia has been asked by some lawmakers to put together a report that details the expenses of death-penalty cases.

She said death-penalty cases were much more expensive than nondeath-penalty cases because there were more procedural requirements, the state was required to provide two attorneys for each indigent defendant, and the process of appealing what happened at the trial level went through both the state and federal courts, all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

And then there are costs related to appeals when higher courts find something wrong with the law itself, as is occurring right now with the Kansas law.

In 2001, the Kansas Supreme Court threw out the death sentence of Gary Kleypas, who was sentenced to die by lethal injection for the 1996 killing of Carrie Williams in Pittsburg. But the state high court found fault with an improper verdict form and a portion of the law that jurors used when deliberating whether to recommend a life or death sentence.

The decision means Kleypas will get a new sentencing trial, as will three other men sentenced in Kansas under the same provision.

These will cost a lot of money.

"In Kleypas, in order for the court to decide the sentencing issues, they have to hear the facts of the case. Although the Supreme Court only required the retrial in the penalty phase, we will have to present evidence from the guilt phase. It will amount to a retrial of the entire case, bringing in witnesses and experts," Scalia said.

Other states

States across the nation are reassessing the death penalty. Outgoing Illinois Gov. George Ryan on Jan. 11 commuted the sentences of his state's death-row inmates, citing instances of misconduct on the part of police and prosecutors in death-penalty cases.

But legislators in Kansas say they don't think the system here has as many problems as Illinois.

Schneweis says think again.

"It is a myth in the minds of Kansas lawmakers that we're not like other states," she said.

Since reinstatement of the death penalty in Kansas in 1994, courts have pointed out prosecutorial misconduct in one case, and jury misconduct in another. No one has been executed in Kansas since reinstatement of the penalty.

Bill Lucero of Topeka, whose father was murdered in 1972, has been an opponent of the death penalty for more than 25 years. Lucero came to his conclusion after he discovered what he said was the arbitrary nature in the way the punishment was sought.

In Kansas, the death penalty will not help the families of victims, Lucero said.

He said the failure to adequately fund the indigent defense agency would result in weaker defenses, which would lead to more appeals. And there will always remain the possibility that an innocent man will slip through the cracks and be executed, he said.

"There is nothing that is more of a nightmare to the family of a murder victim than the thought of an innocent person being executed," he said.

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