Opponents of state’s death penalty law mobilizing

As the Kansas Legislature gears up for a debate about ending the death penalty in the state, advocates from the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty are speaking out locally.

Ben Coates, KCADP member and former director of the Kansas Sentencing Commission, addressed about 20 people Sunday at Plymouth Congregational Church, 925 Vt. Coates cited a variety of reasons why he supports a Senate bill that would prohibit executions in Kansas.

“I think it’s purely wrong for the state to be in the business of taking human lives,” Coates said, citing his religious beliefs.

But Coates, who has taught sociology and criminal justice at Washburn University for more than 40 years, said there are also other reasons to abolish the death penalty.

As director of the sentencing commission, Coates worked on studies showing that the Kansas criminal justice system continues to hand out sentences based on factors, such as race and socio-economic status, that have nothing to do with the crime committed. He worries that’s led to unfair use of the death penalty across the state.

“This has the capacity of being arbitrary,” he said.

No one has been executed in Kansas since 1965, and the U.S. Supreme Court suspended state death penalties in 1972.

Since 1994, when Kansas reinstated its death penalty, 25 people have been tried in capital punishment cases. Twelve men have been sentenced to death, but plea agreements were reached during the appeals process in two cases, which resulted in lesser sentences.

There are now 10 convicted murderers facing the death penalty. The bill in the Senate, however, would not affect those already sentenced.

Coates also spoke about the possibility of executing an innocent person. “The state makes mistakes,” he said. If someone is executed, the state has “no opportunity to correct it.”

Chris Cook, coordinator for the KCADP, said the higher cost for death penalty cases, which she said is estimated at around $750,000 more than other murder cases, is another important factor, especially as the state budget faces a continuing shortfall.

“We’re in a $400 million hole … . We would like to see those monies go to programs than help Kansans,” said Cook, who is currently raising awareness about the issue in advance of a potential vote in the Legislature on the bill.

On Friday, the Judiciary Committee sent the full bill to the Senate for debate. If passed, the bill would then need approval from Gov. Mark Parkinson, who advocated for the death penalty as a state legislator.