Topeka — The surprise of the 2009 legislative session has been the traction of a bill to repeal the Kansas death penalty.
Senate Bill 208, which recently cleared a committee hurdle, will be considered by the full Senate on Monday.
It will be the first major debate on capital punishment in the Legislature since the death penalty was reinstated in 1994. And legislative veterans say they don’t know how the vote will turn out.
Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, said he believes this will be one of the few times that the outcome will be decided “by the debate on the floor.”
Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, R-Independence, who supports the death penalty, said the vote “has the potential to be very close.”
Why this issue has gained momentum has vexed many in the Legislature.
Schmidt said he believes groups opposed to the death penalty laid the groundwork over the past few years, first by getting a state audit done in 2003 that said death penalty cases cost much more than life-in-prison cases because of the need for longer trials, appeals and the hiring of more expert witnesses and attorneys.
Those groups opposed to the death penalty include Amnesty International, Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty and Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation.
With the state in a budget crisis, their argument that pursuit of the death penalty was a waste of money appealed to some. They have also argued that the death penalty has been plagued with legal problems — the result being there are 10 men on death row, but there have been no executions in Kansas since the law was placed back on the books, and no executions in the foreseeable future as the appeals continue.
“Preparation met opportunity,” Schmidt said.
Others have said the state’s implementation of life in prison without the possibility of parole has made some lawmakers more agreeable to getting rid of the death penalty.
“I have been convinced for a long time that having the alternative of life in prison without parole — sort of the death sentence as opposed to the death penalty — may make more sense in the long run. But I think the senators need to take a look at that issue,” Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said.
A 2007 poll commissioned by opponents of the death penalty found that a majority of Kansans believed the death penalty wasn’t applied fairly, and 65 percent preferred that convicted murderers spend life in prison with no chance of parole, over execution.
But Attorney General Steve Six has led the charge against the repeal, saying that when it comes to dispensing justice, cost shouldn’t be a factor.
“We cannot put a price on justice for the victims and their families,” he said.
The death penalty, Six argues, is reserved for “some of the most notorious and dangerous criminals in our state’s history.”
And Six said that if the bill became law, it could affect some pending cases and those already sentenced to death. Supporters say the bill would only affect cases after its effective date, July 1.