Legislators urged to end the death penalty

By Marnie McAllister, Record Assistant Editor

PADUCAH, Ky. — Allen Ault, a former corrections official, acknowledged before a judiciary committee hearing Aug. 1 that he has committed premeditated murder five times.

“For me, capital punishment is not theoretical or philosophical. I have murdered five people as an agent of the state,” he said.

Ault is now the dean of the college of justice and safety at Eastern Kentucky University. And he opposes capital punishment.

He was one of 13 people who addressed the General Assembly’s Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary in Paducah, Ky., Aug. 1, the same day Kentucky’s political party of the year — St. Jerome Church’s annual Fancy Farm Picnic — began nearby.

Thirty two senators and representatives attended the hearing along with about 75 people — both supporters and opponents of the death penalty.

Fr. Patrick Delahanty
Fr. Patrick Delahanty

Father Patrick Delahanty, a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville and the chair of the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (KCADP), said the joint judiciary committee has not focused a hearing on capital punishment since the penalty was reinstated in 1976.

In his estimation, the hearing was a success.

“It was a serious discussion and the attention of legislators was intense. They were paying attention and the audience — it was silent,” he said.

“There’s a mood in the country” that’s reframing the debate, Father Delahanty said. “They’re seeing botched executions.”

Legislators, he said, also are aware they have yet to address a two-year-old report from the American Bar Association that concluded Kentucky’s capital punishment system is broken. And multiple bipartisan bills have been filed in recent years that seek to fix or repeal the death penalty, he noted.

Father Delahanty addressed the hearing on behalf of organizations and individuals who support repeal, including a Louisville police officer, a judge, a Christian woman from Eastern Kentucky and people who have lost loved ones to murder.

“Kentuckians want a system that holds people accountable for the harm they do to others without risking the execution of the innocent,” he said.

Father Delahanty was joined by Ben Griffith, who represented the KCADP and Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation. Griffith told the committee that his brother was murdered in 1986 and the accused, Donald Reese, was executed 11 years later.

Reese’s execution, he said, made him feel empty and the protracted process leading to the execution caused his family anxiety. For the thousands of family members of murder victims Griffith said he represents, “We do not want more killing done in our name.”

The Catholic Conference of Kentucky (CCK), the public policy arm of Kentucky’s bishops, and the Kentucky Council of Churches also expressed opposition to capital punishment. Representatives of the two organizations said, they represent about 800,000 Kentuckians.

The Rev. Dr. Marian Taylor, executive director of the Kentucky Council of Churches, offered a moral argument for repeal.

“Morality is about cooperating with God’s purposes,” she said. “That’s why the Christian understanding of justice has to focus on the potential for redemption and efforts to restore wholeness — wholeness for the individual as well as for the community. The death penalty does not meet this moral standard of promoting redemption and restoring wholeness.”

Jason Hall, the new executive director of the CCK, explained the Catholic Church’s position on capital punishment.

“If there were no way to keep the public safe without executing someone, and if the guilt of the accused could be determined with a high level of certainty, the Catholic tradition … holds that recourse to the death penalty may be acceptable,” he said. “In the industrialized world in the 21st century however, with the ability to restrain persons in institutions and with the difficulties of administering a truly just system of capital punishment, these factors are simply never present.”

Hall also recommended reorienting Kentucky’s justice system with an emphasis on redemption and “restoring wholeness” both for the accused and the communities they harm.

Churches will share in this work, he said, which should include three things — care for victims and survivors, “rethinking what we demand of prisoners and how we help them make restitution,” and prison ministry.

Those speaking in favor of retaining the death penalty included a family member of a murder victim representing Kentuckian’s Voice for Crime Victims, a representative of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and prosecutor G.L. Ovey, a commonwealth’s attorney.

Local news station CN|2 wrote in a story on its website that Ovey told the committee, “for the most brutal and unrepentant convicted criminals ‘the only just penalty is the death penalty.’ ”

The Facebook page of Kentuckian’s Voice for Crime Victims includes a post about the hearing dated July 22 which says, “Our group as well as myself are believers in the death penalty however we do not feel everyone deserves to die. We do feel it should be retained and left on the books as an option because unfortunately there is not only bad in this world there is down right pure evil.”

After the Aug. 1 hearing, Sen. Whitney Westerfield told CN|2 that the speakers helped him explore the issue.

“Right now I’m still on the keeping-the-death-penalty side,” he said in a video clip posted on CN|2’s website. “But I can’t deny that today was very, very helpful to me in exploring some questions and ideas I’ve had about whether we should abolish it. I continue to grapple with questions about redemption and any number of things those crime victims brought up.”

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