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Former prosecutors call for repeal of death penalty

Three former prosecutors have called for replacing the death penalty with life without parole for those convicted of capital murder in Kentucky. In addition to being a prosecutor Stephen Ryan is a retired circuit court judge who sentenced prisoners to death.

Their plea was published in the state’s two newspapers with the highest circulation, the Courier-Journal and the Lexington Herald-Leader, and we anticipate it will be published in other newspapers.

Joseph Gutmann, Stephen Ryan and J. Stew Schneider cited recent polling results in their article and reminded readers that a 2011 report from a Kentucky Assessment Team which studied the process for two years identified numerous problems with the way Kentucky implements the death penalty. There is extensive discussion of this report on this website. 


What Kentuckians Say MoratoriumThe writers point out that when the report was release in 2011 a poll found that 62 percent of likely Kentucky voters supported a temporary halt to executions until the problems identified could be corrected. They go on to say that in the most recent polling released last week Kentuckians would strongly support a decision by the governor to halt executions until the broken system is fixed. They write:

Here is the question the interviewers asked in the poll, which was conducted between March 4 and April 30, and included interviews with 684 Kentuckians over the age of 18 (with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percent):

“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 those problems were fixed. In light of these problems, would you support a decision by the governor to halt all executions until these problems can be addressed?”

Nearly three-fourths of the respondents, 72.4 percent, told interviewers they would support the governor taking such an action.

It is significant that in the past five years not one recommendation made by the Kentucky team of legal experts to fix the system has been implemented. And the percentage of Kentuckians willing to support a governor’s decision to halt executions has increased by 10 percent.

No wonder then that these writers who worked for years in this system now conclude

These poll results make it clear that Kentuckians’ concerns about the fairness of the state’s criminal justice system are growing. Replacing the death penalty with life without parole is the best approach for our state — protecting public safety, providing justice to the families of victims, removing the possibility that an innocent person will be executed and saving limited tax dollars.

Graphic: KCADP using data from the poll by the University of Kentucky Survey Research Center, 2016, ±3.8% margin of error

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64% of Kentuckians agree that Kentucky should abandon the death penalty

003 - Broken system lwop over dp

In a recent poll conducted by the University of Kentucky Survey Research Center, nearly two-thirds, 64 percent, of Kentuckians agreed that the punishment of life without parole should replace the death penalty. They were asked to consider that victim family members had to wait years not knowing when the execution would be carried out, but that life without parole provided family members immediate justice and the satisfaction that the murderer’s sentence had begun. Their agreement that life without parole provides greater benefit to family members is supported by the facts.

In a column published by the Courier-Journal in November 2015, Ben Griffith, whose brother was murdered, said it is “healthier” to live in a state without the death penalty.

Is it any wonder that a 2012 study conducted on the well-being of homicide survivors found that those who lived in a state where the ultimate penalty was life without parole fared much better than those in a state with the death penalty? (Assessing the Impact of the Ultimate Penalty Sanction on Homicide Survivors: A Two State Comparison.  Amour, Marilyn Peterson and Umbreit, Mark S., Marquette Law Review, Fall 2012.  Vol. 96, Article 3.)  This difference in our well-being has every connection to the difference in how long the justice system takes to find final resolution. Appeals to life without parole are resolved in a couple of years on average. Compared to the decades-long averages of resolving death penalty appeals in death penalty states, survivors in life without parole states are more able to find a way forward. This is a big reason why I fight for the abolition of the death penalty in Kentucky. It is healthier!

Respondents were also aware that Kentucky’s death penalty system isn’t working. The majority agreed that we can still punish severely by locking people away for life, without parole, what some call “death by incarceration.”

No matter what you call it, most Kentuckians agree that we are far better off ending the death penalty and replacing it with life without parole as a more cost effective, yet severe, punishment that is healthier for victims, does not risk executing the innocent and restores credibility to a broken system.

To read our press release about the polling results click here. To see additional charts and the text of the question that accompanies each chart click here.

Graphic: created by KCADP using data provided by the University of Kentucky Survey Research Center

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Possible execution of innocent defendants disturbs Kentuckians

002 - Innocence concerns

In January 2003 Illinois Governor George Ryan commuted the death sentences of 163 men and 4 women on death row there. Prior to that he had declared a moratorium because he was appalled that more innocent persons had been released from that death row than had been executed. In his speech commuting these sentences he said:

As I said when I declared the moratorium, it is time for a rational discussion on the death penalty. While our experience in Illinois has indeed sparked a debate, we have fallen short of a rational discussion. Yet if I did not take this action, I feared that there would be no comprehensive and thorough inquiry into the guilt of the individuals on death row or of the fairness of the sentences applied. To say it plainly one more time- the Illinois capital punishment system is broken. It has taken innocent men to a hair’s breadth escape from their unjust execution.

The Death Penalty Information Center lists the names of 156 men and women released from death row in this nation who have been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death. One of those named is Larry Osborne, sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. Larry was released from Kentucky’s death row when a jury in a second trial declared him not guilty. He received that second trial because Kentucky’s Supreme Court unanimously found he had not received a fair trial earlier.

In recent polling by the University of Kentucky Survey Research Center, 71.6% of the respondents expressed concerns about killing the innocent. The poll revealed that although 69.3 % of Kentuckians support the death penalty in the abstract, nearly two-thirds, 61.4%, of them are concerned that an innocent person could be executed.

As found on the Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty website, Jeff Frazee, Founder and Executive Director, Young Americans for Liberty has said:

I first supported the death penalty until I found out how many innocent individuals were being killed and how costly it was on the taxpayers. In a free and just society, we should always strive to protect life, most especially all innocent life. And, ultimately, it costs the taxpayers more to put a man to death than keeping him locked up for life. So after studying the issue, I now strongly oppose the death penalty.”

Even one innocent human life is too much to risk. It is time to abolish the death penalty in Kentucky.

To read our press release about the polling results click here. To see additional charts and the text of the question that accompanies each chart click here.

Graphic: created by KCADP using data provided by the University of Kentucky Survey Research Center



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Kentuckians support life without parole over death penalty

004 - high cost concernsIn a recent poll conducted by the University of Kentucky Survey Research Center, Kentuckians were asked if they would support life without parole instead of the death penalty if it were shown that using the death penalty costs substantially more than imprisonment for life without release.

More than two-thirds, 68 percent, chose to support life without parole instead of continue to use the costly system now in place.

Though lawmakers from both parties have tried to get the General Assembly to approve a thorough study of the costs of the death penalty to taxpayers, legislators have refused to support their legislation. Click here or here to see legislation filed in 2015. Not having a formal study makes it difficult to say what the exact costs are in Kentucky, but it is reasonable to conclude that Kentucky, like states where studies have been conducted, spends far more on pursuit of death sentences than it would if death were not an option.

In our neighboring state of Tennessee two Republican state representatives, Steve McManus and Mark White, called capital punishment “a lousy return on our investment” in a column for The Commercial Appeal, a Memphis newspaper. Citing a study in North Carolina that shows that state spending $11 million-per-year and estimating that Tennessee’s costs is similar, they suggested how those funds could be better spent on “270 patrol officers. 361 state troopers. 228 detectives and criminal investigators. 110 new school buses. 239 teachers. Compensation for 367 crime victims and their families.”

KCADP agrees and 68 percent of Kentuckians are willing to give up the death penalty because of its high cost and use life without parole.

Richard Dieter, former director of the Death Penalty Information Center, testified in 2012 before the Kentucky Senate Judiciary Committee and included the following in his remarks:

In New Jersey, police chief James Abbott served on the commission that reviewed that state’s death penalty law. He concluded that the money spent on the death penalty was wasteful and that there were better ways to reduce crime. He wrote: “I no longer believe that you can fix the death penalty. Six months of study opened my eyes to its shocking reality. I learned that the death penalty throws millions of dollars down the drain — money that I could be putting directly to work fighting crime every day — while dragging victims’ families through a long and torturous process that only exacerbates their pain. . . As a police chief, I find this use of state resources offensive. . . . Give a law enforcement professional like me that $250 million, and I’ll show you how to reduce crime. The death penalty isn’t anywhere on my list.”

There is some evidence and data about the cost in Kentucky. It is important to note that the Commonwealth Attorneys Association and the Attorney General have not provided any assessment of what it costs their offices to prosecute these cases. But we do have information from the Department of Public Advocacy in a 2009 letter from Ed Monahan, the Public Advocate for Kentucky, to the Kentucky Legislative Research Commission staff:

Total Current DPA Cost Per Year

Estimating death penalty costs to Kentucky since 1976 is difficult. A proper calculation of costs associated with the death penalty statewide would require a formal study. Any references to costs outside the context of a completed study can only be estimates. These estimates likely understate actual costs because many of the costs of death penalty representation are hidden. The majority of death penalty costs do not appear as line items in any budget.

Nevertheless, of the line items specifically set aside for death penalty representation, DPA estimates that the Department currently spends approximately $3 million a year on death penalty representation. This does not include the additional spending by the judiciary, the prosecutors, and Corrections.

It is clear from this polling data that Kentuckians want a cost-effective punishment that holds violent murderers accountable, punishing them severely while protecting the public from them. And 68 percent believe life without parole is that punishment.

To read our press release about the polling results click here. To see additional charts and the text of the question that accompanies each chart click here.

Graphic: created by KCADP using data provided by the University of Kentucky Survey Research Center

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Kentuckians prefer lengthy prison terms instead of death penalty

001 - Prefer prison over death penalty

Continuing a trend that began in 1989, new polling data indicates Kentuckians still prefer lengthy prison terms, including life without parole, as the punishment for murders qualifying for the death penalty. This poll, conducted by the University of Kentucky Survey Research Center, interviewed 684 Kentuckians and has an error rate of ±3.8 percent. It is a sophisticated, professional poll that sought to determine an accurate picture of Kentuckians attitude about the death penalty as it is actually used in Kentucky. It is not another standard poll that questions respondents about an abstract death penalty and whether or not the respondent supports or opposes. It is a poll completely unlike the inaccurate and unprofessional polls legislators conduct all the time with their constituents.

When interviewers asked Kentuckians which of the five possible sentences available under Kentucky law they preferred in cases of “first-degree murder,” 57.8 percent chose either life without parole or another type of prison term. Only 42.2 percent chose the death penalty. (Kentucky law does not call crimes eligible for the death penalty “first-degree murder,” but the actual polling question did use that term.)

Dr. Gennaro Vito, chair of the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Louisville, has followed polling data about the death penalty for many years and has provided an analysis which shows that over time Kentuckians’ attitudes about the death penalty have been consistent for years.

A comparison of death penalty attitudes over a 27-year period of polling reveals that Kentuckians support long term sentences over capital punishment. Over the five polls, the average level of death penalty support was 34.4% while the average level for a long term sentence was 51.8%.

These five survey results over 27 years clearly reveal that the majority of Kentuckians favor a long term sentence over the death penalty for convicted murderers. Policy and decision makers at all levels of government, especially legislators and criminal justice operatives, should take note of the consistency of these findings as the people of Kentucky are expressing their opinions clearly.

The Survey Research Institute of the Urban Studies Institute at the University of Louisville conducted the 1989, 1997 and 1999 surveys. In October of 1989, data were collected from a probability sample of 811 Kentucky households (margin of error = + 2.5%). The 1997 survey was conducted in July and had an N of 709 (margin of error = + 2.5%). The 1999 had an N of 909 (margin of error = + 4.8%). The 2006 survey was conducted by the University of Kentucky and had an N of 836 (margin of error = + 3.3%). The 2016 was conducted by the University of Kentucky and had an N of 684 (margin of error = + 3.8%).

Answers to other questions revealed that an overwhelming majority, 72.4 percent, of Kentuckians would support the governor if he declares a moratorium on its use until the broken system is fixed; 68 percent support life without parole over the death penalty if it can be shown to cost more than life without parole; 71.6 percent agree that there is a risk of executing the innocent; and 64 percent of all respondents support replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole to end the long wait for punishment inflicted on victims’ family members when a death sentence is handed down.

Click here to read the press release about the poll. And click here to see the exact questions asked of Kentuckians in the areas mentioned above.

As Dr. Vito says “the people of Kentucky are expressing their opinions clearly.” It is time to abolish the death penalty in Kentucky.

To read our press release about the polling results click here. To see additional charts and the text of the question that accompanies each chart click here.

Graphic: created by KCADP using data provided by the University of Kentucky Survey Research Center

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