Death penalty opponents see some progress

Record Editor

For the first time in its history, the judiciary committee of the Kentucky Senate has held a hearing on a bill that would replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

The hearing occurred March 1 and specifically concerned Senate Bill 63, sponsored by Senator Gerald Neal. The committee listened to the testimony of several witnesses, and no vote was taken. But the significance of the moment — the fact that the committee even heard testimony on the proposal — was important to those who continue to work to end capital punishment in the state.

“This represents progress,” said Father Patrick Delahanty, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, the public policy arm of the state’s bishops. Father Delahanty is also a leader of the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and he said the opening of dialogue with representatives of state government was a giant step forward.

“This really is the first time there has been an open presentation about abolishing the death penalty put before the judiciary committee,” he noted. “This was historic, and it was significant that almost every senator (on the committee) was present for a hearing on a bill that they knew ahead of time they wouldn’t be voting on.”

The more those opposed to the death penalty can discuss its shortcomings with political leaders, the priest noted, the more chance for progress on the issue.

“The more we can present information about how broken it is, how the system is not really adequate to make sure sentences are applied to the right people for the right crimes, then the more likely they are to wonder why we continue to do this,” Father Delahanty said.

Of special significance, he noted, was testimony from Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., and Law professor Jordan Steiker.

Steiker co-authored a study that led the American Law Institute (ALI) to withdraw support for the language the institute had developed as part of the Model Penal Code. That language is used as a template by lawmakers around the country when drafting legislation concerning capital punishment.

“Professor Steiker told the committee that ALI determined at the end of their study that the capital punishment system isn’t working,” Father Delahanty said. “They didn’t suggest abolition, because that’s a political action. But they said they couldn’t think of a way to improve the system so that it would work, and instead ALI decided they’d withdraw their support for the statutory language.

“As far as ALI is concerned, the system is so broken that it can’t be fixed,” he added.

Richard Dieter told the committee that the death penalty costs millions, that as the Death Penalty Information Center has examined the issue around the nation, it has found that 140 people have been released because they were innocent, and that to fix the current system would be economically unfeasible.

“There is a movement across the country away from capital punishment,” Father Delahanty noted. “So you’ve seen it end in New York, New Jersey, New Mexico and Illinois. There’s a chance California will have a referendum on capital punishment, and if it is ended there, that would be a very dramatic statement. They have the largest death row in the country and one of the most expensive death penalty systems. If people there say ‘we’re done with it,’ it would send quite a message to others.”

Sharon Schuhmann, coordinator of pro-life ministries for the Archdiocese of Louisville, was also present at the March 1 hearing, and she, too, was moved by its historic nature.

“It was a huge, huge step forward,” she said in an interview last week. “This is monumental in the Commonwealth to even have such a hearing, and the important thing is that it has laid the groundwork for future hearings.”

Schuhmann said that sitting at the hearing and listening to death penalty experts discuss the nation’s broken system made her believe that the movement to abolish that system is growing.

“I left there thinking that I’d learned so much about this issue, about what’s happened in the past and about what’s broken,” she said. “It was an education provided by these experts, and they weren’t there trying to pursuade the committee. They were there to educate them.”

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