The Kentucky Commission on Human Rights in October voted unanimously to recommend that the Commonwealth abolish the death penalty.
It’s an act that represents a large and major step in the right direction.
An agency of Kentucky state government decided to become part of the growing revelatory tide that is acknowledging the irrationality of capital punishment. The commission on human rights has joined a growing number of individuals and institutions who realize the futility and abhorrence behind the “if you don’t kill ’em, they’ll never learn” mentality of the death penalty.
The commission’s action was such an important one that it has reverberated across the nation.
The New York Times editorial page made note of the decision on Oct. 24, writing that there is “every reason for Kentucky to take the advice (of the commission) and become the 18th state to prohibit capital punishment.”
“The death penalty in Kentucky is colossally unfair, costly and riddled with constitutional error,” the editorial said. It noted that from 1976 through last year, the state saw 78 people sentenced to death. Fifty of them had their sentences overturned on appeal — 15 of those for “prosecutorial mistakes or misconduct.”
The New York Times editorial writers took note of last December’s report from an American Bar Association review of Kentucky’s capital justice system. The ABA review team consisted of lawyers, professors and former members of the State Supreme Court, and “found enormous problems with the state’s capital system.”
Kentucky’s laws and procedures, the ABA report said, “failed to protect the innocent, convict the guilt and ensure the fair and efficient enforcement of criminal law in death penalty cases.”
The editorial also noted that:
- Judges presiding over capital trials often give inadequate jury instructions which led many jurors to not understand that they could consider sentences other than the death penalty.
- Because some prosecutors will treat every death-eligible case as a capital case, while others will not, application of the death penalty in the state is “largely arbitrary and capricious.”
- The system does not protect the rights of people with severe mental illnesses, who, according to the U.S. Supreme Courts, cannot be sentenced to death.
- There are no standards governing the qualifications for lawyers who handle capital cases in Kentucky. In fact, 10 of the 78 people sentenced to death had lawyers who were later disbarred.
The New York Times also noted that in 2010, a state court prohibited Kentucky from executing anyone because of “substantial legal questions regarding the validity” of the commonwealth’s lethal-injection protocol. That alone, the writers concluded, should mean the end of capital punishment in the state.
Father Patrick Delahanty, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky and a leader of the state’s Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, agrees with everything the Times editorial said. In fact, he’s been making many of the same arguments for years. And he agrees that the recommendation by the human rights commission represents a watershed moment.
“It’s significant, not only because it represents the growing movement away from use of the death penalty,” he said, “but because this is a state agency. In a sense, these are state actors who are calling on the general assembly and the governor to repeal the death penalty.”
The commission, he noted, has used “the same data that’s available to everyone, especially after the ABA report, that indicates that the death penalty system in Kentucky is completely broken.”
The tide is turning against capital punishment. Father Delahanty and those who work with him to eliminate this abomination can’t help but be encouraged by the ABA study, the human rights commission recommendation, and a proposed United Nations resolution that says the death penalty is, in fact, a form of torture.
Father Delahanty and Sharon Schuhmann, coordinator of pro-life activities for the archdiocese Office of Family Ministries, attended a Nov. 27 strategy meeting on the issue of capital punishment called by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“We’ll keep plugging along,” Father Delahanty said of efforts to end the death penalty.
And every step, such as the one taken by the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights, helps.