Kentucky Lawmakers Kill Bill to Abolish Death Penalty

A state House committee strongly rejected a bill Wednesday that would abolish the death penalty, saying the state needed to retain capital punishment as a sentencing option.
by | March 10, 2016 AT 4:30 PM

By James Mayse

A state House committee strongly rejected a bill Wednesday that would abolish the death penalty, saying the state needed to retain capital punishment as a sentencing option.

House Bill 203 was filed by Rep. David Floyd, a Bardstown Republican. The bill was co-sponsored by 12 legislators from both parties and had the support of a former judge, a former assistant commonwealth's attorney and Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty, a national conservative group.

The last execution in Kentucky was in 2008, and the state currently has an injunction in place against executing people on the state's death row. Numerous bills have been filed calling for repeal of the death penalty over the years, and a 2011 report by the American Bar Association found numerous and "substantial" concerns with how death penalty trials and appeals were handled in Kentucky, and about the lack of any requirement that evidence from death penalty convictions be preserved for future DNA testing.

Floyd's bill called for the death penalty to be abolished, and for anyone currently on death row to have their sentence changed to life without the possibility of parole.

Marc Hyden, national advocacy coordinator for Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty, said group members believe capital punishment "is inconsistent with our core principles" of valuing life. The death penalty is expensive and "does not deter murder," Hyden said.

"I believe conservatives are correct to be skeptical about this power (of government), because many of us don't trust the government to deliver a piece of mail," Hyden said.

Many people on death row nationwide have had their convictions overturned and continuing to allow the death penalty would "guarantee mistakes will continue to occur," he said.

According to the Innocence Project, 336 people on death row nationwide have been exonerate through DNA testing.

Stephen Ryan, a retired District and Circuit Court judge from Jefferson County, said death penalty cases over which he has presided generally took more than year before they went to trial, because the defendants' public defenders were required to file "multiple, multiple motions to protect their clients' rights." When a defendant was sentenced to death, the appeals process would take years, Ryan said.

"It take 15 to 21 years for a case to get through the appellate process," Ryan said. "... We're spending millions prosecuting and defending death penalty (cases).

"I don't think it gives closure to the family" of the victim, Ryan said. However, if a person is sentenced to life without parole, families "know that person is going to prison for the rest of their life."

Joseph Gutmann, a former deputy commonwealth's attorney from Jefferson County, said he prosecuted death penalty cases and believed in the death penalty because "an innocent person could never get through the entire court process" and be found guilty.

But, Gutmann said, "I was wrong on all accounts... Victims (families) want to know the person won't be able to hurt anyone else. Life without parole accomplishes this."

Rep. Gerald Watkins said, according to polls he has seen, "67 percent of Kentuckians support the death penalty," and people sentenced to life without parole could have their sentences commuted by governors.

"The problem with life in prison is there's no guarantee (it) means life in prison," Watkins said. "If you opt for life in prison, there's no guarantee that's where the person will be."

For "heinous crimes," Watkins said, "I do believe (the death penalty) needs to be a sentencing option."

Rep. Johnny Bell, a Glasgow Democrat, recounted the case of Gabriella Doolin, a 7-year-old who was raped and killed in Allen County last November. A Scottsville man, Timothy Wayne Madden, 38, has been charged with murder, rape, sodomy and kidnapping in the incident

"To me, I want the individual to feel the same terror and dread that 7-year-old girl did" when he is facing the death penalty, Bell said. A sentence of life without parole "doesn't seem balanced to me."

Several members voted "no" on the bill, while others chose to "pass" on the vote. Rep. Brent Yonts, a Greenville Democrat, passed on the bill and said legislators should look at death penalty laws in other states that only allow the death penalty under certain circumstances.

"That might be a compromise on this point," Yonts said.

(c)2016 the Messenger-Inquirer (Owensboro, Ky.)