Place moratorium on Ky. executions

The American Bar Association's study of capital punishment in Kentucky is full of disturbing facts, such as:

■ At least 10 of the 78 people sentenced to death since 1976 were represented by lawyers who were later disbarred.

■ Kentucky has inadequate protections against convicting the innocent and permits destruction of evidence while a person is imprisoned, which would make a DNA exoneration impossible.

■ Among jurors, there is a widespread lack of understanding of how they were supposed to weigh the evidence in death penalty cases.

Even supporters of capital punishment, which includes this editorial page, will come away from this study with serious doubts about the fairness and accuracy of the process that condemned 34 people to Kentucky's Death Row.

The study took two years and was overseen by a panel of Kentucky lawyers and law professors, including former Supreme Court justices James Keller and Martin Johnstone.

The ABA, which has no position on the death penalty, has undertaken similar assessments in eight other states, and in five of them recommended a moratorium on executions while flaws in the system were addressed.

The ABA's conclusion that three of the eight states had fair death-penalty systems speaks well of the objectivity of the research and conclusions.

Gov. Steve Beshear should follow the recommendation to suspend executions while the findings are considered and reforms enacted.

Regardless of what Beshear does, the study reveals important changes the legislature and courts should enact — changes to ensure fairness and accuracy throughout the criminal justice system, not just in death penalty cases.

For example, only a few police agencies have a policy of video- or audio-recording all confessions. And few follow best practices to guard against false eyewitness identifications.

Kentucky also needs better data. It's impossible to say whether the death penalty is consistently applied because no data is collected on cases in which death was sought but not imposed or when it could have been sought but was not.

Chief Justice John Minton said the 60-percent error rate by trial courts sentencing defendants to death — 50 of 78 have been overturned on appeal — is a sign the system is working.

That's scant consolation when you remember that appeals courts can only consider issues raised during trials. .

The ABA team lauded Kentucky's public-defender system but also pointed out that public defenders here are paid a third less than their counterparts in surrounding states. The state pays private lawyers representing defendants facing death less than it pays its other contract lawyers.

The ABA also did polling which found the Kentucky public is way ahead of elected officials, who quake at the thought of being called soft on crime.

A majority of likely Kentucky voters, regardless of where they live or their political party, support a temporary halt to executions.

The public understands, as a former ABA president put it, that "a system that takes life, must first give justice."