By Glenn Rutherford, Record Editor
Last week in California, a federal judge ruled that the state’s death penalty system was so broken that it was unconstitutional — it unfairly left inmates with uncertain fates, often for years on end.
That was good news to people in Kentucky who’ve long opposed capital punishment, people such as Father Patrick Delahanty, executive director of the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and Jason Hall, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky (CCK), the public policy arm of the state’s four Catholic bishops.
What is additionally encouraging to death penalty opponents is going to happen Aug. 1 in Paducah — a meeting of the Interim Joint Committee on the Judiciary.
At that gathering, a full 90 minutes of the meeting’s two-hour agenda has death penalty opponents energized and optimistic, said Father Delahanty.
A few years ago, he explained, the state’s General Assembly began using the interim periods between sessions of the legislature to seriously consider issues of importance to the Commonwealth. That they’re using this judiciary committee meeting to seriously consider the nature of the state’s death penalty system is one element that opponents of capital punishment find so encouraging, Father Delahanty said.
“Rep. David Floyd (a Republican from Bardstown) is out there in the lead on this issue, on this meeting,” he explained. Republicans usually have been in favor of the death penalty, but some are now considering the financial aspects of the system — the fact that a capital punishment case takes longer and costs more money, even if it ends with the death of the convicted, than putting the criminal in prison for life without the possibility of parole.
“Enthusiasm is growing” among those opposed to capital punishment, Father Delahanty noted. “That’s absolutely the case — we’re excited. We’ve been watching the mood of the country change over the past several years. The decision in California was a good one and noted that their death penalty system might be unconstitutional. And some of the same circumstances that apply in California might be true in Kentucky.
“The system in the state is so broken, and it’s broken in a way that if you fixed it, it would cost millions on top of the millions already spent,” the priest noted.
He also noted that “just looking at the practical nature of the limited money that’s being produced these days by tax dollars, a system like one in Kentucky that’s been found to have a 60 percent error rate” is unnecessarily expensive, he said. That’s especially true since the state has had on the books since 1998 a law that allows life in prison without the possibility of parole as an alternative to sentencing someone to death.
Jason Hall, the executive director of the CCK, said he thought the changing mood of the nation against the death penalty is the result of education.
“The best arguments against capital punishment are now more widely known than before,” he said, “and I think the passion for it on the pro-death penalty side has waned. It certainly isn’t as strong as it once was.”
Hall noted that people — both politicians and their constituents — are “more open to hearing about the problems with the death penalty and the arguments against it.”
“For legislatures particularly, it’s the fiscal arguments that are getting their attention,” he explained. “They’re beginning to see the complexities of the system.”
And the public is making note of the potential for mistakes within the state’s system, too.
“Just look at the one recent case where the state Supreme Court unanimously overturned a dealth-penalty conviction,” Father Delahanty said. Hearsay evidence had been used in the first trial, which resulted in a sentence of death. When, on appeal, that evidence was prohibited from being used, a jury declared the same man “not guilty.”
In 2011, an American Bar Association study of the state’s death penalty system was released, and it said the system was so flawed that the state should suspend executions until it addresses questions of fairness and accuracy in death sentences. As a result of a court order issued by the Franklin Circuit Court, no one may be executed at this time. Judge Phillip Shepherd has set a September date for a trial regarding matters related to the state’s execution protocol.
The Aug. 1 judiciary committee hearing will begin at 10 a.m. CST at Western Kentucky Technical and Community College in Paducah.
While it represents what both Father Delahanty and Jason Hall called a huge step in the right direction, the state remains several major legislative steps away from doing away with capital punishment completely.
“But this shows we’re making progress,” Father Delahanty said.