Archive for Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Life without parole considered as option in death penalty cases

February 11, 2004


— A Senate panel heard testimony Wednesday in support of a bill that would give juries the option of recommending life without possibility of parole in death penalty cases.

Kansas is among 38 states that have some form of death penalty, but one of just three that does not have the option of life in prison without parole. Currently, the state's stiffest sentence short of the death penalty is 50 years in prison without parole, the so-called "hard 50" sentence.

The bill before the Senate Judiciary Committee was drafted from recommendations offered by a study committee that looked at the cost of the death penalty.

Randy Hearrell, executive director of the Kansas Judicial Council, said a life without parole option could save the state between $400,000 and $500,000 per capital murder trial. He said due-process mandates from the U.S. Supreme Court account for most of the additional costs of death penalty cases.

A Legislative Post Audit study found that the average cost of a death penalty case has been $1.2 million. Chris Clarke, of the audit division, told the committee that costs could be reduced because defendants sentenced to life without parole typically raise fewer issues on appeal.

Hearrell said some prosecutors feel they must seek the death penalty or risk putting violent offenders back on the streets.

"We believe the jury is less likely to impose the death penalty if the alternative is life without parole," Hearrell said, citing a poll of 916 death penalty jurors in 11 states.

Kevin O'Connor, an attorney with the Sedgwick County District Attorney's office, has been involved in numerous death penalty cases in the Wichita area. He told the committee the death penalty is being used appropriately by prosecutors and applied appropriately by jurors.

"It's been my experience that juries do the right thing, even in cases that I've lost," O'Connor said.

Kansas has seven people sentenced to death under its 1994 capital punishment law. The state's last executions, by hanging, were in 1965.

The committee took no action on the bill but did have questions about whether some juvenile offenders should be sentenced to life without parole. Currently, Kansas law prohibits executions of people for crimes they committed as juveniles.

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