Callous disregard of ensuring justice; Ky. death-penalty reforms ignored for years

Almost three years ago, the American Bar Association released a devastating audit of the death penalty in Kentucky.

The result of a two-year effort, the findings were extensive, 438 pages, and well-documented. Among the most damning findings were these:

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

■ Of those 78 convictions, 50 were overturned because of significant legal errors.

■ Jurors often didn't understand the instructions given to them in death penalty cases.

■ There are inadequate protections to prevent executing people who are seriously mentally ill.

The report included 93 specific recommendations to remedy this dreadful state of affairs.

Not one of them has been implemented.

Bills to address the problems, and to abolish the death penalty, have been introduced since the ABA report, but have stalled with no action.

That's the background as the Kentucky General Assembly's Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary hears testimony on the death penalty today.

Unlike a committee hearing in one house during a legislative session, this won't end with a vote up or down on proposed legislation. It is largely an educational or fact-finding session.

That's OK. The facts should be aired again and again until lawmakers decide to face, and deal with this issue.

The most basic reason is the most compelling: It is a fundamental human rights violation to wrongly take someone's life.

But this issue goes way beyond the individuals who might be wrongly sentenced to death, and those close to them.

If Kentucky is this sloppy about cases involving life and death, how can citizens trust the system gets it right on lesser charges?

If the wrong people are convicted for crimes at any level, then those who actually committed them are still walking our streets.

It takes enormous resources to prosecute and defend death penalty cases, spending them on a system that doesn't work is an unconscionable waste.

The bottom line that these committee members need to take into the next session is this: Kentucky needs to either fix the problems with the death penalty or abolish it.