Government & Politics

Kansas Senate to review death penalty

TOPEKA — Legislators are planning to give the Kansas death penalty statute a deeper look this week, focusing on growing concerns about the financial burden for capital punishment litigation.

Despite misgivings about the chances of any repeal passing, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Tim Owens said there's merit in periodically reviewing the law. Testimony begins today in Owens ' committee.

"I consider myself an oughta-crat. This is something we ought to review, regardless if there are chances for it pass," said Owens, R-Overland Park.

The repeal bill was introduced late in the 2009 session, but sent back to the committee and Kansas Judicial Council for revisions. The proposal calls for no new cases after July 1, with existing cases allowed to go to trial.

Kansas enacted its death penalty law in 1994, but there have been no executions since it took effect. There are 10 men under sentence of death and many legislators say there is little chance of ending the practice.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lance Kinzer said he doesn't see support in the House even if the Senate passes a repeal measure.

"My view is that the death penalty is an appropriate punishment for certain types of crime, and it's beneficial to public safety in Kansas to have a death penalty statute on the books," said Kinzer, R-Olathe. "I think, frankly, that Kansas has a pretty good death penalty statute that has all of the necessary protections to make sure it's implemented fairly."

Donna Schneweis, coordinator for the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty, said the Judicial Council's report showing the rising cost of capital cases in already tight budget times gives reason to review the law. In addition, there has been movement nationally to repeal the death penalty, including New Mexico in 2009.

"I think there are more waking up to this," she said. "There is something about the death penalty that makes it more strenuous internally. The tragedy of homicide puts an added emotional level to it."

Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt said it's unfair to the victims' families to create apprehension that those convicted of the crimes won't be punished or sentenced to a lesser fate, regardless of cost.

A 2003 state audit showed the average cost of a death penalty case is $1.2 million compared with $740,000 for other murder cases, but capital punishment supporters call the analysis flawed.

If a bill were to clear the Legislature, Gov. Mark Parkinson would find himself deciding whether to undo a measure he helped push in 1994 as a member of the Senate.

"I believe the governor has said in the past that he supports the Legislature examining whether it has been effective as a crime prevention mechanism," said Parkinson's spokeswoman Beth Martino.

"He will carefully review whatever legislation ultimately reaches his desk."