Topeka A Senate panel endorsed a bill Friday to repeal the Kansas death penalty, saying it’s a debate that legislators must conduct.
The 7-4 vote by the Judiciary Committee sends the bill to the full Senate The bill would eliminate the state’s 1994 death penalty law and would replace the crime of capital murder with aggravated murder, punishable by life in prison without parole.
However, it’s unclear if the House will even take up the matter. And if the Legislature were to pass the bill, it would go to Gov. Mark Parkinson, who helped write the death penalty law when he was a legislator.
Still, Judiciary Chairman Tim Owens said it was legislators’ duty to debate the death penalty and other serious issues and he wouldn’t vote to defeat the issue in committee.
“This truly is life and death that we are talking about, and I don’t think there is anything more serious that the Legislature can talk about,” said Owens, an Overland Park Republican.
Debate by the full Senate is expected in early February.
Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt cautioned the committee that it was unlikely the House would take up the issue, because it is wrestling with a projected budget shortfall of nearly $400 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
The Senate debated a similar measure last year and wound up sending it back to committee over concerns about over numerous concerns, including how it would apply to those already under sentence of death. The current bill would not apply to the 10 men currently under death sentences in Kansas.
Schmidt, an Independence Republican, said it was unfair to victims’ families to force them to continue to come to Topeka to defend capital punishment.
“If you believe it’s not going to become law this year,” Schmidt said of the measure to repeal the death penalty, “stop it now and don’t drag people through more rounds this year.”
Not all family members of murder victims oppose the bill. Bill Lucero, of Topeka, whose father was killed in New Mexico in 1972, is a longtime capital punishment opponent who leads a support group for victims’ families.
He describes his opposition to the death penalty as pragmatic, saying it doesn’t help victims’ families. He said the passion for capital punishment from some family members often wanes as they heal. Lucero said the hurt will not go away, even if families aren’t compelled to testify before legislators or a parole board.
“I feel that pain,” Lucero said. “The process has to go forward. The debate has to happen. What will happen? I don’t know.”
No one has been executed under Kansas’ current death penalty law. The state last executed convicted murderers, by hanging, in 1965.
Although Parkinson helped draft the 1994 law, he said it was important for legislators to “closely examine whether it has been an effective crime deterrent and a tool for prosecutors.”