Lawmakers hear pros and cons on death penalty in Kentucky

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FRANKFORT, Ky. (KT) - Kentucky’s use of the death penalty, including comments from proponents and opponents, was the topic of a legislative committee meeting Friday.

 

Since 1976, Kentucky has executed three death row inmates, two of whom waived their appeals, according to Andrew English, general counsel for the Justice Cabinet.  “Since 2010, we were under an injunction by the courts to cease all executions and cease all progress toward executions in the commonwealth.”


English told the General Assembly’s Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary that the Department of Corrections attempted in 2012 to “rewrite the regulations to achieve conformity with the court rulings.


“There’s an ever-evolving change in the landscape when it comes to federal and state courts, with the death penalty.”


He testified they are changing their execution protocol to deal with such issues as more access to legal counsel for defendants, changing the drug cocktail used for executions from two drugs to one, as well as the mental capacities of inmates, in light of a June ruling by the Kentucky Supreme Court in the case of condemned killer Robert Keith Woodall, who is intellectually disabled.


Although the courts will have the last word, English said, “I feel comfortable that the new regulation addresses concerns in the Woodall case.  We don’t have a strict line set on mental capacity.  There’s going to be a review of mental capacity that takes place.  I think that is something ultimately will affect things more at the trial court level than with appellate courts.”


He also told the panel that of the 31 inmates on Kentucky’s death row, only one is a woman, and the average time on death row stands at 24.5 years.


Committee members also heard from prosecutors, including Brian Wright, Commonwealth’s Attorney for Adair and Casey counties.  He described for lawmakers the process he uses to determine in which cases he would seek the death penalty.


“Number one, the nature of the offense, but a close second would be the defendant’s criminal history.  The type of defendant you’re dealing with, for example, if he has any mental health issues.”


Wright says he has avoided other death penalty cases by allowing the accused to plead guilty to a lesser offense, with those receiving a sentence of life without parole, or life without parole for 25 years. 


“We also factor into it input from law enforcement and the victim’s family,” Wright said. “I think it’s very important the victim’s family have a voice in any prosecution.”


Chris Cohron, the Commonwealth’s Attorney for Warren County, said seeking the death penalty in a case is a decision not taken lightly. 

“When I was first elected Commonwealth’s Attorney, I remember thinking, ‘God help me if I ever have to make the decision whether or not to file that notice of intent to seek the death penalty.’  It was a few months later that, for the first time in my career, I had to make that decision.”


Opponents of the death penalty also spoke, including Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville, a member of the judiciary committee.


He said there is no more important issue.  “Every life, from the first heartbeat to natural death, is worthy of protection, and the only reason it is justifiable to take a life is to protect another,” Nemes said. “Life without parole, which is relatively new in Kentucky, I think satisfies that need.”


“We don’t believe the government can adequately fill potholes.  And if we don’t believe the government can do that perfectly, then why should we give it the power to do that which is irreversible?  In Kentucky, we’ve had 49 out of 97 convictions reversed.  Not all of them on direct appeal.  Since the death penalty was reinstituted in 1976 by the United State Supreme Court, there have been 156 exonerations.  Exonerations of a man who was sentenced to die by the hands of the government.”


Nemes said, “Kentucky should get out of the business of killing its citizens, unless they are a danger to other people.  We should end the death penalty in Kentucky, and it can’t come soon enough.”


Rep.  John Blanton, R-Salyersville and a retired Kentucky State Police officer, responded to comments made by death penalty opponents who said it costs more to prosecute and deal with appeals in death penalty cases than a life without parole sentence. 


Blanton said: “When we use money as a reason to justify ending the death penalty, we’ve reached a new low.  We have a reason for the death penalty.  Let’s speed up the process.”      

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