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Archive for Thursday, February 19, 2004

Senate panel endorses sentencing alternative

February 19, 2004

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— A Senate committee endorsed a bill Wednesday to make life without parole the alternative sentence in capital murder cases.

Supporters think the bill will decrease the overall cost of capital murder cases for the state by encouraging some defendants to plea bargain for the life sentence and giving juries the option to recommend it instead of death by lethal injection.

The Judiciary Committee's voice vote sent the measure to the Senate for debate and came a day after the committee endorsed another bill designed to clarify a prohibition on executing mentally retarded defendants.

Currently, juries in capital cases have the option of recommending a "Hard 50" sentence, or life without the possibility of parole for 50 years.

But a recent study of more than 900 jurors in capital punishment cases in 11 states suggested that they were more likely to recommend death if they didn't like the possibility that a capital murder defendant might be released -- however slight that possibility.

"Juries are understandably skeptical of laws with loopholes," said Sen. Derek Schmidt, R-Independence. "They still don't like the idea that this person might get out. They like certainty."

The committee amended the measure to ensure the life without parole sentence would not be an option for juvenile offenders. The state's 1994 capital punishment law already prohibits the execution of capital murder defendants who juveniles at the time of their crime.

"We just hold children to a different standard," said Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City.

In December, a legislative audit said the average cost of a death penalty case in Kansas is $1.2 million. The audit recommended creating a sentence of life without parole.

Also, an advisory group of judges and attorneys that studied the state's death penalty law last year concluded that a life without parole option could save the state between $400,000 and $500,000 per capital murder trial.

Both the auditors and the advisory group told the committee in testimony last week that costs from a capital murder case would be lower if a defendant is sentenced to life without parole because such defendants typically raise fewer issues on appeal than do defendants sentenced to death.

Also, the auditors said, of the 38 states that have capital punishment, 35 have an alternative sentence in capital cases of life without parole. The exceptions are Kansas, New Mexico and Texas.

"It's a viable option a jury should have," said Judiciary Committee Chairman John Vratil, R-Leawood. "Many juries are concerned about the possibility of someone who is convicted of capital murder being out on the street again at some point. This option is designed to unsure that someone is not back out on the street."

Kansas has seven people sentenced to death under the 1994 law. The state's last executions, by hanging in 1965, occurred under a capital punishment law struck down as unconstitutional in 1973.

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