A Time to Speak — The travesty of the death penalty must end

Father Patrick Delahanty

By Father Patrick Delahanty

Stunned. I could not believe what I’d just heard.  Kenton County Circuit Court Judge Raymond Lape, now deceased, had looked squarely at the defendant and told him to cross-examine the witness.

Defendant Gregory Wilson, facing death, said, “Your honor, I don’t know how to cross-examine a witness.”

With no lawyer for the defendant present in the courtroom, the trial continued.

This sordid trial ended in 1987 with the expected death penalty for Wilson and a lesser sentence for his co-defendant, Brenda Humphrey.

Humphrey had engaged in an illicit sexual affair throughout the trial with the Kenton County Circuit Judge James Gilliece, a “dear friend” of Judge Lape. Humphrey was released on parole in 2017.

If Wilson had competent representation, the jury that convicted him would have known also that Humphrey had confessed to her sister that she was actually the one who slit the victim’s throat.

During Wilson’s appeal, Judge Boyce Martin, who served on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, described this case as “one of the worst examples that I have seen of the unfairness and abysmal lawyering that pervade capital trials.”

He added, “When a person is sentenced to death in a kangaroo court such as Wilson’s, with an illicit sexual affair taking place between a co-defendant and a colleague of the trial judge and no semblance of qualified defense counsel, it irreparably tarnishes our legal system. Until we reform this broken system, we cannot rely on it to determine life and death.”

Wilson lost that appeal, which had a three-judge panel, and other appeals.

He has remained on death row these last three decades.

In December, Wilson got some justice. Governor Matt Bevin commuted his death sentence to life with the possibility of parole.

In his statement about the commutation, the former governor said, “To say his legal defense was inadequate would be the understatement of the year. The prosecution and defense in this case were, from start to finish, incredibly incompetent. Justice should be served on all sides. It was not. The fact that the actual admitted killer is now out of prison and her co-defendant is on death row would indicate that Mr. Wilson got the short end of the justice stick on his day in court.”

Wilson is not alone in receiving the “short end of the justice stick.” Two others received commutations of their death sentences.

In the clemency request for Wilson, attorney Dan Goyette wrote that Gov. Paul Patton commuted the death sentence of Kevin Stanford “because he believed that the justice system had ‘perpetuated an injustice’ ” in that case. And Goyette further notes that Governor Ernie Fletcher granted clemency to Jerome Leonard “because of the inadequate representation” Leonard received from the lawyer who represented him at trial.

Cases like these are clear evidence that legislators in Kentucky should repeal the death penalty, but there is even more evidence they should do so.

In 2009 a team of well-known and respected Kentucky jurists, attorneys and legal scholars began what became a two-year analysis and evaluation of the fairness and accuracy of the death penalty in Kentucky. This Kentucky Death Penalty Assessment Team issued a 438-page report that raised concerns about the process and made nearly 100 recommendations to prevent wrongful convictions and provide for reliable outcomes.

In its report, the team raised concerns “about the expenditure of Commonwealth resources to administer what the Assessment Team has found to be a system with insufficient safeguards to ensure fairness and prevent execution of the innocent.”

Every person sentenced to death in Kentucky was tried under this system.

The time has come to put an end to this travesty and ensure no defendant gets the “short end of the justice stick.”

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