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It’s Time for Lawmakers to Quit Tinkering with the Machinery of Death

Justice Blackmun

Fifteen years ago this week, Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun concluded that after a 20-year struggle with the issue of the death penalty he could no longer support it: “The death penalty experiment has failed,” he wrote. “From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.” He called upon his fellow justices to abandon the “delusion” that capital punishment could be consistent with the Constitution.

In 2009, The American Law Institute, national professionals who had provided the model legislation that led to the system now in place, followed Justice Blackmun and withdrew its support for its own model. ALI Director Lance Liebman said that the Institute was withdrawing its support of Section 210.6 of the Model Penal Code “in light of the current intractable institutional and structural obstacles to ensuring a minimally adequate system for administering capital punishment.” The Institute also decided not to engage any further in proposing legislation related to capital punishment.

No matter how significant these voices are, Kentucky continues to ignore reality and “tinker[s] with the machinery of death.”

This past week, however, death penalty machinery ground to a halt in two more cases. Grave errors in two separate cases resulted in death sentences being struck down, and, in one case, even the conviction was reversed.

A federal court concluded that a death sentence was improperly imposed on Roger Wheeler because the trial judge wrongly dismissed a juror who was able to consider the range of penalties fairly. The Court stated that to exclude an otherwise eligible juror stacks the deck against the defendant. Carrying out a death sentence under circumstances like these is to “deprive [a defendant] of his life without due process of law.”

In the other case, the Kentucky Supreme Court concluded unanimously that Michael St. Clair’s trial for kidnapping was tainted by the introduction of evidence of a murder that took place in another state. This, the Court said, could lead to undue prejudice, confusion of the issues in the trial, and misleading the jury. The trial court also allowed the out-of-state murder victim’s widow to offer testimony that was irrelevant to the charges St. Clair faced. The Court said these errors were not harmless and struck down both the convictions and the death sentence.

These are two more examples of why Kentucky should abolish the death penalty. Nearly 70% of the death sentences imposed in Kentucky have been reversed, adding to the trauma victims’ family members already suffer because of this broken system. Add to that the possibility of executing the innocent, as could have happened in the case of Larry Osborne whose death sentence and conviction were unanimously reversed by the Kentucky Supreme Court. Osborne was subsequently declared “not guilty” by a jury in 2002.

These harmful errors also burden taxpayers with the added costs of new trials that have consumed millions of tax dollars that left other areas of need unfunded. The Courier-Journal has reported

Kentucky is spending millions of dollars each year on a capital-punishment system so ineffective that more death-row inmates are dying of natural causes than are being executed.[Louisville Courier-Journal]

Enlightened legislators are filing bills that repeal the death penalty, or determine its costs or tinker with the system with the hope of repairing it and restore its credibility.

Justice Blackmun saw the light 15 years ago and quit tinkering with the machinery of death; those who drafted the model law for its implementation agreed in 2009 that the machine is broken beyond repair and withdrew their model law and decided not to offer another one.

It is time to quit tinkering with the machinery of death in Kentucky. Contact your state legislators and urge support for bills that will end our tinkering with the death penalty for good: 1.800.372.7181.

Photos: courtesy government sources

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Death penalty exoneree, legislators call for end to death penalty in Kentucky

On Feb. 4, death row exoneree Kirk Bloodsworth joined Kentucky legislators at a news conference to call for the abolition of capital punishment in Kentucky. Besides reporters, representatives from the ACLU of Kentucky, the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, Murder Victims’ Family Members for Reconciliation and The Kentucky Council of Churches were there. KCADP appreciates their presence and also thanks State Senator Perry Clark and State Representatives Jim Wayne and Addia Wuchner for their support and attendance.

Kirk Bloodsworth speaks with reporters about his years on death row and how DNA exonerated him.

Kirk Bloodsworth speaks with reporters about his years on death row and how DNA exonerated him.

Bloodsworth, the first person in the nation exonerated from death row through post-conviction DNA testing, served more than eight years following his conviction in Maryland for the sexual assault and murder of a 9-year-old girl. Two of those years were on death row.

His exoneration followed DNA testing on evidence collected at the crime scene that incontrovertibly established his innocence.

“Two juries were wrong,” Bloodsworth said. “Two judges were wrong. The state of Maryland was wrong. …I am not here because the system worked. I am here because a series of miracles happened.”

Bloodsworth is a member of Witness to Innocence, a nonprofit organization of death row exonerees that educate the public about innocence and wrongful convictions in capital cases. To date 150 former death row inmates have been exonerated. More information about his experience can be found on the Witness To Innocence site.

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Rep. David Floyd, sponsor of HB 82 and HCR 30

Joining Bloodsworth on Wednesday were state Sen. Gerald Neal and state Rep. David Floyd, who have filed bills in their respective chambers (Senate Bill 15 and House Bill 82) to abolish the death penalty and replace it with life imprisonment without parole for inmates currently sentenced to death and allow life without parole for offenses now classified as capital offenses.

“If you support the death penalty, come and shake hands with this man, who was wrongly convicted,” Floyd said. “We have a system that condemns to death the innocent as well as the guilty. Reasonable people will cry for change.”

The legislators also addressed resolutions they have filed (Senate Concurrent Resolution 11 and House Concurrent Resolution 32) to establish a task force to study the costs of administering the death penalty in Kentucky.

Sen. Neal

Sen. Gerald Neal, sponsor of SB 15 and SCR 11

“It is my obligation – as it is for others – to properly manage the taxpayers’ money, and we would not be fulfilling our responsibility as good stewards were we not to ascertain the costs associated with the death penalty and the impact it has on the state’s revenue,” Neal said.

Bloodsworth’s week-long tour in Kentucky is sponsored by Witness to Innocence, the ACLU of Kentucky, and the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

The following links take readers to the articles published following the news conference. Remember that often links to these kinds of materials change and/or expire.

The AP story ran in many newspapers and was reported on TV news programs as far away as Seattle.

Last Saturday, the Ky Standard used the news conference as a jumping off point to report further on the effort of Rep. Floyd to move his legislation.

The #KYRepeal Campaign is grateful to these lawmakers and their colleagues who have begun to co-sponsor these bills. Click on the bill numbers above to see who the co-sponsors are. You can reach your state legislators at the toll free number: 1.800.372.7181. Messages left with legislative staff are delivered directly to your state senators and representatives.

Photos: ©2015 Riverbirch Productions, used with permission.

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‘It’s irresponsible to not at least know what those costs are.’

Sen. Gerald Neal and Rep. David Floyd (in front) are joined by murder victim family members Ben Griffith and Ruth Lowe, and Catholic Conference of Ky. executive director Jason Hall at a Feb. 2014 news conference at the state capital.

Faced with a broken death penalty system that appears costly and wasteful, two Kentucky lawmakers are urging their colleagues to allow a study that examines what this is really costing Kentucky’s taxpayers. According to a report by Kentucky Public News Service, Attorney General Jack Conway continues to reject the idea, saying it is not easy to determine these costs.

According to the story, Sen. Gerald Neal and Rep. David Floyd indicated that public defenders have provided estimates of what the Department of Public Advocacy spends while working to defend clients facing the death penalty.

After posting the story on the KCADP Facebook page, death penalty advocate Tony Nichols commented and raised several excellent questions. Believing that others would be seeking answers to similar questions, posted below are links to excellent materials about the cost of the death penalty in states where cost studies like the one Sen. Neal and Rep. Floyd are seeking have already been completed.

The most recent, as the KPNS article points out, was in the state of Washington. Law professors at Seattle University found that each death penalty case cost an average of $1 million more than a similar case where the death penalty was not sought ($3.07 million, versus $2.01 million). Defense costs were about three times as high in death penalty cases and prosecution costs were as much as four times higher than for non-death penalty cases. Criminal Justice Professor Peter Collins, the lead author of the study, said,

What this provides is evidence of the costs of death-penalty cases, empirical evidence. We went into it [the study] wanting to remain objective. This is purely about the economics; whether or not it’s worth the investment is up to the public, the voters of Washington and the people we elected.

SeattlePI is reporting that the mayor of Seattle, Edward Murray, the city attorney, Pete Holmes, and all nine Seattle council members have written state legislators urging them to seek “a safe and just alternative to the death penalty.” SeattlePI writes,

Enormous costs incurred prosecuting death penalty cases through years of appeal have figured prominently in both the Olympia legislation and the Seattle officials’ letter.

“We only cite the last three cases here: They’re at $15 million and counting,” Holmes said. “We can debate endlessly whether a defendant deserves to die. The question is whether that is valid reason to spend $15 million in public funds.”

In their letter the city officials argued,

. . .as the cost to taxpayers for three current capital cases in King County rises above $15 million, we see an urgent need to reform this costly and ineffective practice of our criminal justice system.

Local government and communities would benefit from using this money for victim support programs, stronger investigative units and violence prevention.

Attorney General Conway may be right; it might not be easy to determine the costs. But law firms do it all the time; they know how much to bill each client, down to the quarter-hour. Good public servants are accountable to the taxpayers for whom they work. As Sen. Neal told KPNS,

“It’s irresponsible to not at least know what those costs are,” Neal said, “and how they effect the bottom line of the Commonwealth.”

The links below lead readers to an article about the Washington study which appeared in the Seattle Times as well as a link to the complete study where anyone who wishes will find answers to the questions raised in Tony Nichols’ Facebook post. Richard Dieter who directs the Death Penalty Information Center testified before the Kentucky Senate Judiciary Committee on March 1, 2012. You can read that testimony here.

(J. Sullivan, “Seeking death penalty adds $1M to prosecution cost, study says,” Seattle Times, January 7, 2015; P. Collins, et al., “An Analysis of the Economic Costs of Seeking the Death Penalty in Washington State,” Seattle University, January 1, 2015). See Costs and Studies.

Photo: courtesy Ky. Legislature Research Commission Public Information

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Witness To Innocence tour returns to Kentucky February 2 – 5

Near the end of his excellent book, Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson quotes Walter McMillian, a former Alabama death row inmate. Walter was innocent and eventually released because of Bryan’s legal skills and persistence. During one meeting in the prison, Walter tells Bryan, “Dying on some court schedule or some prison schedule ain’t right. People are supposed to die on God’s schedule.” Walter is right. He died in 2013 a free man and is no longer here to tell of his mistreatment by the state of Alabama.

But, Kirk Bloodsworth is still free to tell his story, how the state of Maryland sentenced him to die. And how DNA evidence and the ability to test it exonerated him and led to his freedom. He will be in Kentucky from Monday through Thursday beginning February 2. The full schedule is below and KCADP encourages supporters to find a doubting friend and take him or her to hear Kirk speak about the nightmare of being innocent, but condemned to die. A system so flawed that 150 have now been released must be abolished.

On Wednesday Kirk will be in Frankfort visiting lawmakers and asking them to repeal the death penalty. You can meet him throughout the day. At 10:00 AM you will find him in Room 346 in the Annex building that sits behind our beautiful Capitol. At that time he will join Sen. Gerald Neal and Rep. David Floyd for a news conference. The public is invited.

How many of the 150 wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death inmates are from Kentucky? Click here for the answer.

WITNESS TO INNOCENCE TOUR SCHEDULE FOR FEBRUARY 2015

Monday, February 2, 2015 at 4:00 PM CST
Henderson Community College, Fine Arts Center, Stagg Room
2660 S. Green St.
Henderson, KY 42420
Hosted by: Henderson Community College and
The African American Pastors & Layman’s Alliance.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015 at 11:30 AM CST
Education Center, Room 178
202 Bastogne Ave.
Ft. Campbell, KY 42223
Hosted by: Hopkinsville Community College

Tuesday, February 3, 2015 at 7:00 PM EST
Loyal Jones Appalachian Center in Stephenson Hall
205 N. Main St.
Berea, KY 40404
Hosted by: Madison County Kentuckians for the Commonwealth

Wednesday, February 4, 9:00 AM – 2:00 PM EST
State Capitol, Frankfort
Join him at 10:00 AM for news conference with Sen. Gerald Neal and Rep. David Floyd
Room 346 in the Capitol Annex Building

Thursday, February 5, 2015 6:00 PM EST
250 University Blvd., Room 002 Breckinridge Hall
Morehead, KY 40351
Hosted by Morehead State University

This Witness to Innocence Tour is sponsored by Witness to Innocence, the ACLU of Kentucky, and KCADP. KCADP appreciates the ongoing work of the ACLU to secure grants and to assign staff to repealing the death penalty in KY.

Graphic: courtesy deathpenaltyinfo.org

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Resources to use with lawmakers during the 2015 General Assembly session

End Kentucky's death penalty

Please use #KYRepeal and #KYGA15 when posting on Facebook or other social media.

The documents listed above are resources to help Kentuckians who oppose the death penalty have meaningful discussions with their legislators. You may download and email these files or print them out and give them directly to your State Senator and State Representative.

scales_justiceContacting them can be as simple as making a phone call to the toll free phone number 1.800.372.7181 or sending an email sent through our legislative alert system. Most effective, however, is a face-to-face visit with them. KCADP staff and key volunteers are ready to work with you and make it happen. It is important lawmakers hear from you and know that repealing the death penalty in Kentucky is something you really want them to do.

So, first and very important: this is a bi-partisan effort. Democrats, Republicans and others support abolition and have filed bills. We must approach members of all parties asking for their help and not engage in partisan politics. We are urging a new public policy in Kentucky and that is important to all regardless of party affiliation.

Below is a description of the documents listed at the top of the page. Why you personally oppose the death penalty is important. But often legislators – busy with many issues – need education about the issue. This is why we are making resources available that address various aspects of the death sentencing process in Kentucky.

It is very important the legislators understand you are not suggesting violent murderers should not be accountable. They may ask what you propose to do with them. The bills that have been introduced repeal the death penalty, but keep in place life without parole as the maximum penalty. Here is a set of talking points about life without parole: Talking Points for Life Without Parole Instead of the Death Penalty.

mvfrLawmakers often ask about victim family members and suggest that we must kill the killer to help them, to bring them healing. Victim family members sit on our board, many have recorded videos calling for abolition. This document from Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation explains how the death penalty actually causes them more harm: How the Death Penalty Causes Additional Harm To Victims’ Families.

Everyone should be concerned that the use of the death penalty creates the possibility of executing an innocent man or woman. Kentucky had to release one man from death row who was not guilty and a dozen or so others who were wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. Juries, police, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and others make mistakes. Provide this document to legislators so they can see that Kentucky doesn’t always get it right: Kentucky Makes Mistakes: Larry Osborne Freed From Death Row.

Kentucky’s Death Sentencing Process is Capricious and Arbitrary. This document lists cases for which the defendant was eligible for the death penalty, but received a lesser sentence. It is important because it shows how arbitrary our system is. A fair and just system implies that those who commit similar crimes are similarly punished. There are many on Kentucky’s death row whose crime was not nearly as heinous as those on this list who did not get sentenced to death. The Kentucky Supreme Court is required by law to compare all these cases to one another, but does not do so. One reason: proper records are not kept. Educate your legislators about this failure in the system.

Other voices are important to lawmakers so we have included three documents you should give them:

  1. Why Conservatives Oppose the Death Penalty; Support Life Without Parole outlines why more and more conservatives are urging abolition of the death penalty;
  2. He ‘murdered’ 5 men in Georgia; Dean Allen Ault Writes About Why He Opposes the Death Penalty describes Dean Ault’s experience that has led him to call for abolition of the death penalty; and
  3. Judge, Prosecutors Argue Life Without Parole Effective, Less Costly; Repeal Death Penalty is an article written by those who worked in the system and came to know its flaws.

If you are posting on Facebook, Tweeting, and using other social media, please use the hashtags – #KYRepeal and #KYGA15 – to draw attention to the fact that we are working together to end the death penalty. These resources should also be shared with friends, family members, co-workers and others to raise awareness in Kentucky of the need to repeal the death penalty and, instead, use severe prison sentences to punish killers, protect society and preclude executing innocent persons.

Graphics: Murder Victim Families For Reconciliation; and www.intellectualconservative.com

 

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