Topeka — Legislators are planning to give the Kansas death penalty statute a deeper look this week, focusing on growing concerns about the financial burden for capital punishment litigation.
Despite misgivings about the chances of any repeal passing, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Tim Owens said there’s merit in periodically reviewing the law. Testimony begins today in Owens’ committee.
“I consider myself an oughta-crat. This is something we ought to review, regardless if there are chances for it pass,” said Owens, an Overland Park Republican.
The repeal bill was introduced late in the 2009 session, but sent back to the committee and Kansas Judicial Council for revisions. The proposal calls for no new cases after July 1, with existing cases allowed to go to trial.
Kansas enacted its death penalty law in 1994, but there have been no executions since it took effect. There are 10 men under sentence of death and many legislators say there is little chance of ending the practice.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lance Kinzer said he doesn’t see support in the House even if the Senate passes a repeal measure.
“My view is that the death penalty is an appropriate punishment for certain types of crime, and it’s beneficial to public safety in Kansas to have a death penalty statute on the books,” said Kinzer, an Olathe Republican. “I think, frankly, that Kansas has a pretty good death penalty statute that has all of the necessary protections to make sure it’s implemented fairly.”
Donna Schneweis, coordinator for the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty, said the Judicial Council’s report showing the rising cost of capital cases in already tight budget times gives reason to review the law. In addition, there has been movement nationally to repeal the death penalty, including New Mexico in 2009.
“I think there are more waking up to this,” she said. “There is something about the death penalty that makes it more strenuous internally. The tragedy of homicide puts an added emotional level to it.”
Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt said it’s unfair to the victims’ families to create apprehension that those convicted of the crimes won’t be punished or sentenced to a lesser fate, regardless of cost.
A 2003 state audit showed the average cost of a death penalty case is $1.2 million compared with $740,000 for other murder cases, but capital punishment supporters call the analysis flawed.
“This is not an issue of cost. It’s an issue of justice. There are cases where a jury of a defendant’s peers ought to have available to them the ultimate punishment to meet justice in that case,” said Schmidt, an Independence Republican. “The cost argument’s gotten way beyond what the data supports.”
But Schneweis said when capital cases have been appealed, several defendants ultimately have been resentenced to life without parole because of flaws in the law or other factors. It raises the question of why go to the expense if something less than death is sentenced.
“This system is so broken. More and more senators are waking up to that. With the budget being what it is, this is not an appropriate public policy,” she said.
If a bill were to clear the Legislature, Gov. Mark Parkinson would find himself deciding whether to undo a measure he helped push in 1994 as a member of the Senate.
“There’s a lot of review to do, because a lot has changed since 1994,” she said.