Kentuckians’ growing rejection of death penalty based on facts


Ever heard this one? “Don’t confuse me with facts. My mind’s made up!”

It might bring a chuckle, but this bumper-sticker flippancy also sends the message that factual information is wasted on one whose opinion cannot be swayed.

Fortunately, that is not the case with a majority of Kentuckians, as a recent poll by the University of Kentucky Survey Research Center makes clear. In this case, the question is whether Kentucky should call a halt to executions until the state fixes the many problems that plague its capital punishment system.

Kentuckians, in fact, overwhelmingly support such a suspension in executions — and most believe that lengthy prison sentences, including life without parole, are preferable punishments for people convicted of first-degree murder.

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.

That exceeded the level of support for the death penalty reflected in the poll (69.3 percent). Even among those who support the death penalty, 62.6 percent said there should be a halt in executions until the system’s problems are addressed.

We have written before about the many troubling findings that included:

▪ An error rate of more than 60 percent on death-penalty cases — meaning most death sentences have been overturned on appeal by Kentucky or federal courts.

▪ The lack of a requirement that evidence in criminal cases be retained as long as a defendant remains incarcerated.

▪ The absence of uniform standards on eyewitness identifications and interrogations.

▪ Public-defender caseloads far in excess of national averages and salaries far below those of attorneys with similar experience in surrounding states.

▪ No statewide standards governing the qualifications and training of attorneys appointed to handle capital cases.

When the report was released in 2011, a poll found 62 percent of likely Kentucky voters supporting a temporary halt to executions.

The increase in support of the suspension is noteworthy. The recent poll also found that support for the death penalty declined when respondents could choose among possible punishments for people convicted of first-degree murder.

“Which of the following punishments do you personally think is most appropriate for persons convicted of first-degree murder in Kentucky?” Responses were:

▪ Death penalty – 42.2 percent.

▪ Life in prison with no chance of parole — 35.4 percent.

▪ Life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years — 7.4 percent.

▪ Life in prison with no chance of parole for 20 years — 2.1 percent.

▪ A sentence of 20-50 years with a chance of parole after 85 percent of the sentence is served — 13 percent

Asked about the high cost of administering the death penalty as a result of mandated appeals, as well as additional trials and associated housing costs, 68 percent of the respondents strongly or somewhat support replacing it with life imprisonment without parole.

Their concerns about possibly executing an innocent defendant were reflected in their agreement (at 71.6 percent) with a statement that the capital punishment system risks doing just that. Even most of those who support the death penalty agreed (at 61.4 percent) that there are risks of executing the innocent.

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.

Joseph P. Gutmann is a former Jefferson County assistant commonwealth attorney; Stephen Ryan is a retired circuit court judge and former prosecutor, defense attorney and probation and parole officer; and J. Stewart Schneider is the er commonwealth attorney in Boyd County.