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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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