Government & Politics

Death penalty bill goes to Senate

TOPEKA — The full Senate will have the chance to debate the death penalty after a panel endorsed a bill abolishing capital punishment in Kansas.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 7-4 to move along Senate Bill 375 on Friday.

It would eliminate the state's 1994 death penalty law and would replace the crime of capital murder with aggravated murder, punishable by life in prison without parole.

It would apply to crimes committed on or after July 1.

Several lawmakers said the bill still has a difficult path ahead.

Senate Republican Leader Derek Schmidt of Independence urged senators not to move the bill forward, saying it is unlikely to make it to the governor's desk this year.

Although the Senate grappled with the issue last year and has had time to think about it, the House has not had the same opportunity, he said.

"The question is not is the death penalty going to be repealed this year," he said. "The question is, at what point does it stop this year?"

Others disagreed.

"People need to be able to review something as serious as a death penalty consideration, because this is truly life and death we are talking about," said committee Chairman Tim Owens, R-Overland Park.

Kansas reinstated the death penalty in 1994. Ten men are on death row, but no one has been executed in the state since 1965.

Opponents of capital punishment have argued it is costly and does little to deter violent crimes. Supporters of the death penalty — including prosecutors and victims' family members — have argued that lawmakers can't put a price on justice.

Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita, said he voted to reinstate the death penalty and has been a strong supporter of capital punishment. He said he doubted the figures that show death penalty cases are more expensive, but he did question the deterrent factor.

"It doesn't seem to have slowed down the rate of people doing these horrible crimes," he said.

Donovan voted to send the measure out of committee but said he wasn't sure how he would vote during the full senate vote.

Sen. Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita, said she voted against the measure in committee because that is how she plans to vote when the bill reaches the Senate floor.

Voting yes were Republican senators Dwayne Umbarger, Thayer; John Vratil, Leawood; Mary Pilcher Cook, Shawnee; Donovan, Wichita; Owens, Overland Park; and Democratic senators Laura Kelly, Topeka and David Haley, Kansas City.

Voting no were Republican senators Schodorf, Wichita; Schmidt, Independence; Julia Lynn, Olathe; and Terry Bruce, Hutchinson.

The panel tabled a second bill debated by the Senate last year then returned to the committee with questions about how it might affect current death row inmates if a sentence were overturned.