Poll shows support for curbing death penalty

(Graphic Special to The Record)
(Graphic Special to The Record)

By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer
A poll conducted by the University of Kentucky Survey Research Center found that 72.4 percent of Kentuckians support a halt to executions until problems with the state’s death penalty are corrected.

Problems with the death penalty in Kentucky were identified in a 2011 study by the American Bar Association. The study concluded that the state’s system does not “sufficiently protect the innocent, convict the guilty and ensure the fair and efficient enforcement of criminal laws.”

The latest poll — commissioned by the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (KCADP) — also found that 57.8 percent of Kentuckians favor lengthy prison sentences, including life without the opportunity for parole, over the death penalty.

The poll, conducted between March 4 and April 30, asked 684 respondents five detailed questions about use of the death penalty.

Father Patrick Delahanty, chair of the KCADP and a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville, said he’s pleased by the results of the poll, but not surprised by them.

“I know what has been going on in the country with trends relating to the death penalty,” said Father Delahanty. “Within the past nine years eight states have ended the use of the death penalty.”

Father Delahanty also noted that across the country the number of executions have been diminishing and the number of death sentences are down. The last execution in Kentucky was carried out in November 2008. There are currently 33 inmates on death row in Kentucky.

The priest said he believes the latest Kentucky poll is unique and more accurate than past polls. It shows, he said, how Kentuckians “really feel” about capital punishment and not what “people abstractly think.”

Past polls, he said, have asked simply whether or not one supports the death penalty. The latest poll, he noted, provided information for respondents to consider.

The question related to the 2011 study asked: “A two-year study by a panel of Kentucky law professors, judges and other legal scholars found major problems in the administration of the death penalty in Kentucky and recommended that the state should suspend executions until these problems are fixed. In light of these problems, would you support a decision by the governor to halt all executions until these problems can be addressed?”

Given this information, 72.4 percent of respondents recommended halting executions.

The question related to alternative sentences asked:
“Which of the following punishments do you personally think is most appropriate for persons convicted of first-degree murder in Kentucky?” The death penalty,

  • Life in prison with no chance of parole.
  • Life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years,
  • Life in prison with no chance of parole for 20 years, or
  • A sentence of 20-50 years with a chance of parole after 85 percent of the sentence is served.

When presented with this information, 57.8 percent chose longer prison terms and life in prison without parole over capital punishment.
That number rose even higher when respondents were informed about the cost to taxpayers of implementing the death penalty and the emotional toll these cases have on victims’ families.

  • When told of its high cost, 68 percent of Kentuckians support replacing the death penalty with life without parole — 34.2 percent said they strongly supported it and 33.9 percent somewhat supported it.
  • Also 64 percent of respondents support replacing death penalty with life without parole when informed that death penalty cases can go on for more than a decade, causing victims’ families to endure years of waiting and uncertainty. It found that 27.2 percent strongly agreed while 36.8 percent somewhat agreed.
  • 71.6 percent of respondents agreed that the capital punishment system risks executing innocent individuals — 28.5 percent strongly agreed while 43.1 percent somewhat agreed.

Jason Hall — executive director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky (CCK), the public policy arm of the state’s bishops — said he’s pleased by the results of the poll.

It shows, he said, that “when you get below the surface and talk about the death penalty, the way it’s used” in Kentucky that “people have a lot of reservations, and rightly so.”

Both Father Delahanty and Hall agreeed that the results of the poll reflect recent jury decisions in capital cases.

In the past eight years only four people have been sentenced to death in Kentucky and in one of those cases the sentence was reversed and a lengthy prison term put in its place, said Father Delahanty.

Edward Monahan, the Kentucky public advocate and a former CCK executive director, said the poll results bode well for the future. (Monahan also serves on The Record’s editorial board.)

“These poll numbers will call people of goodwill to focus on fixing the problem,” said Monahan.

He, too, noted he was not surprised by the results of the poll. What surprised him, he said, is that the “comprehensive” 2011 study of the death penalty in Kentucky “remains unresponded to.”

“We can’t sit around and wait on a matter of life and death,” said Monahan. “This is not a time for gradualism. It’s a time to fix the system.”

Father Delahanty noted that the poll results come at a good time. On June 21 Gov. Matt Bevin announced the creation of the Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council (CJPAC), a 23-member bipartisan panel, to study the state’s penal code and make recommendations to improve that system.

Father Delahanty said he hopes the panel will include the death penalty in their study.

Hall noted that the panel was created to look at smaller offenses, so murder and capital punishment may be outside their focus. The death penalty may come up, he added, when the panel starts looking at the cost of the corrections system.

All three men said they are hopeful these new findings will result in a senate hearing during the 2017 session of the Kentucky General Assembly. Hall said he believes “it’s only a matter of time before we get some serious movement on an abolition bill.”

A bipartisan measure, House Bill 203, failed in the House judiciary committee after a hearing in March. To learn more about the death penalty in Kentucky and the results of the poll, visit www.kcadp.org.

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