In 1964, Kentucky Governor, Ned Breathitt, convened a panel of distinguished Kentuckians to study the death penalty and make a recommendation regarding its use. The majority of that panel voted to recommend abolition of the death penalty. Kentucky’s General Assembly did not act on that recommendation and it stayed in place, but went unused, until the Furman ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972.
Since its passage Kentucky has executed three men, two of whom volunteered.
Kentucky lived without the death penalty for another four years until the U.S. Supreme Court’s Gregg decision in 1976. In December that year, Governor Julian Carroll (now a State Senator and a supporter of the death penalty) signed a bill passed during a special session reinstating the penalty. Eleven of the 138 General Assembly members voted against that bill.
Between 1976 and the present there have been Kentuckians calling for an end to executions. Those first voices cried out primarily from the urban areas: Louisville, Lexington, Owensboro and the Covington environs. Eventually opponents began to hear about each other and held some preliminary meetings together to get a sense of what to do to rid the state of this barbarous practice.
Finally, instead of sitting around and talking to each other, a small group began to meet legislators with the intent of holding confidential conversations with them, assuring them no information discussed would be used in a legislative race, and asking some specific questions. When completed, 136 legislators had shared thoughts and opinions with their interviewers.
This process, begun in 1986, culminated in the introduction of three bills in 1988 (at that time our legislators met only in even-numbered years): abolition of the death penalty for juveniles; abolition for mentally retarded persons and a bill regarding jury instructions when a defendant could establish severe emotional or physical abuse as a child. None passed. That year.
Also, in 1988 the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty incorporated as a non-profit corporation. Membership included individuals and several organizations who some would know as the “usual suspects.” This event opened to door to raising funding to pay primarily for a few office expenses, newsletters and a few educational materials for distribution to legislators and others where we might have some opportunity to speak.
From that time until now the coalition has used a variety of actions and strategies to hold the death penalty at bay until policy makers abolish it: in 1990 we passed legislation signed by the governor that ended the death penalty for people with mental retardation; in 1998, after repeated attempts, the Racial Justice Act—now one of only two in the country—passed.
Maintaining a presence in Frankfort, the state capitol, has allowed us to gain respect among lawmakers, even those who disagree with us. This has resulted in blocking legislation that would expand the reach of the death penalty by adding additional aggravators to the books.
In 2000, we began a more determined push to abolish the death penalty when a retired attorney—disturbed by the execution of Harold McQueen in 1997—dedicated hours of volunteer time, raised enough money to hire our first staff person and published his book about the history of the death penalty in Kentucky.
Though this did not result in abolition, it did raise awareness for the cause. Membership increased after the execution and as a result of this new effort. But, with no recent legislative successes, we began to lay out another plan in 2008. By then we had had to reduce staff.
KCADP strengthened its board and received commitments of contributions of more than $200,000 for a three-year period so we could hire full-time staff again to develop ways to educated Kentuckians and organize our advocacy efforts.
Interested readers can click here to read about the results of that effort.
For the past two sessions of the General Assembly (now meeting annually) we pursued passage of legislation to end the death penalty entirely and to end it for severely mentally ill persons. While not yet successful, the ground work has been laid and there is increasing momentum to do something in the state about this penalty.
Much of that intensity is due to the recent release of a report by the American Bar Association that specifically calls for an end to executions for severely people with mental illness. Lawmakers we have spoken to or who have spoken to others – who support the death penalty – say they have some real concerns about what has happened in Kentucky.
The ABA report calls for a moratorium and polling associated with the report reveals that 62 percent of Kentuckians agree. Astute observers believe Kentucky is on the brink of a breakthrough here that will advance the cause of abolition significantly. If true, this will help us all.
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