Just before this legislative session began, the American Bar Association released the results of a two-year review of the death penalty in Kentucky.
The findings were stark and disturbing. No one who read the report could come away feeling certain that our state had done the right thing each time a person was condemned to death. The briefest snapshot includes these findings: At least 10 of the 78 people sentenced to die since 1976 were represented by lawyers who were later disbarred; of those 78 convictions, 50 were overturned by federal or higher state courts because of significant legal errors.
With that damning evidence in hand, there was hope that the legislature might move forward on some death penalty reform measures.
One measure, House Concurrent Resolution 173, has had some success. HCR 173, which seeks to create a task force to consider the ABA reform recommendations and develop a plan to carry them out, has made it out of committee in the House and will be voted on there this week. While important, it's not a measure that should stir controversy since it only seeks to develop a plan to improve things, so we'll be eager to see how it fares in the Senate.
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The story is not so good for House Bill 145, a bill to exempt the severely mentally ill from the death penalty. It was pre-filed just about the time the ABA report was released and assigned to the House Judiciary Committee on Jan. 3. Although it was posted on March 5, indicating it would be heard in committee, that hasn't happened. The bill languishes where it was sent over two months ago, with no discussion, no hearing and, of course, not even a vote in committee much less in the full House.
Apparently Kentucky lawmakers believe that prohibiting execution of people who were not capable of fully understanding their actions is too hot to handle. That's disturbing under the best of circumstances, but considering the incompetent representation in many death penalty cases that the above numbers confirm, it's almost incomprehensible.
We understand that some prosecutors are wary about restrictions on the death penalty. But many current and former prosecutors argue that reform is essential to maintaining a fair, and credible, criminal justice system. We agree with them.