For many years, this editorial board’s position on the death penalty has been keep it but fix it, because some crimes are so heinous that no other punishment will do.
We now must concede that the death penalty is not going to be fixed and, in fact, probably cannot be fixed at any defensible cost to taxpayers.
In 2011, the American Bar Association issued a devastating assessment of a capital punishment system in Kentucky rife with injustices and the potential for error, along with recommendations for reform. A few of the recommendations have been considered but lawmakers have shown scant interest in reform, refusing even to consider shielding the mentally ill from the death penalty.
For the sake of justice, the legislature should abolish capital punishment in Kentucky.
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In Frankfort on Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee is expected to hear a bill that would do just that. If lawmakers and the public bring an open mind to consideration of House Bill 203, they too will see that the sooner Kentucky joins the 19 states that have no death penalty, the better. (Four additional states have death-penalty moratoriums imposed by governors.)
While there are many reasons to shut down Death Row, one of the most compelling is how capital cases prolong the suffering of homicide survivors.
The popular notion that an execution brings relief to those left behind is untrue for many. Lots of personal experiences and a 2012 study suggest that survivors fare better and regain a sense of control in their lives more quickly when the penalty is life with no possibility of parole, a sentence that has been available in Kentucky since 1998.
The risk of a wrongful execution demands a rigorous — and long — appeals process. The error rate in capital convictions in Kentucky is more than 60 percent, according to the ABA report, which found that federal or state courts had overturned the convictions of 50 of 78 people sentenced to death. Considering also that 156 Death Row inmates have been exonerated in this country over the last 43 years, there’s no honorable argument for shortening appeals.
That means there also can be no sense of resolution or peace for the families and friends of victims, who must relive the horror and grief at every turn of an appeals process that can take decades.
A homicide survivor is a leader of the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Frankfort piano technician Ben Griffith’s brother was brutally murdered in Missouri by a mass killer who was executed in 1997. Griffith advocates abolishing the death penalty and putting some of the savings into better services for victims.
The toll on public employees who carry out executions is also troubling. Allen Ault, who oversaw five executions as corrections chief in Georgia, warns of suicides, drug and alcohol abuse and depression among executioners. “I do not know one who has not experienced a negative impact,” wrote Ault, the retired dean of Eastern Kentucky University’s College of Justice & Safety.
Then there is the high cost of a penalty that empirical evidence shows has no more deterrent effect than life without parole. The growing conservative opposition sees the death penalty as an example of government waste and fallibility.
The legislature last year failed to act on a proposal for a cost study. But North Carolina would save $11 million a year by abolishing the death penalty, according to a 2009 study by a Duke University professor. Death penalty cases cost much more to prosecute, then there are the appeals plus the cost of segregating the condemned on Death Row.
Of the 32 people awaiting execution in Kentucky, eight were convicted and sentenced in this century, an average of one death sentence every two years. Ending the death penalty would codify what juries of Kentuckians and prosecutors already have decided.