Death penalty a tough issue for state lawmakers

Editor’s note: Sen. John Vratril, a Johnson County Republican, sends a newsletter to constituents and others interested about current issues in the Kansas Legislature. In the first letter he wrote this session he traced the effort to repeal the Kansas death penalty law in chronological detail. His account, which is reproduced below, gives Kansans a clear view of how the state’s lawmakers handle an important and controversial issue.
... On Feb. 26-27, 2009, the Senate Judiciary Committee began hearings on Senate Bill 208 (SB 208), a bill that would abolish the death penalty in Kansas. These committee hearings featured lively, passionate testimony on a subject that has long been a source of controversy.
The death penalty has a long history in Kansas and the United States. In 1907, the Kansas Legislature repealed the state’s first death penalty law. The death penalty was reinstated in 1935, and nine executions occurred in the next 10 years. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death penalty in Furman v. Georgia. Four years later in Gregg v. Georgia, the Court held that the death penalty was not per se unconstitutional and permitted states to reinstate capital punishment if certain procedural safeguards were implemented. These safeguards included two-phase trials and automatic appeals. Following the Court’s ruling in Gregg v. Georgia, Kansas enacted the current death penalty law, taking effect in 1994.
In Kansas, although over 70 persons have been charged in capital murder cases, and 11 persons are currently sentenced to death, no one has been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1994. The last execution in Kansas occurred in 1965. The 1994 amendments also included an alternative to the death penalty, providing for a sentence of life without parole for a person convicted of capital murder who is not sentenced to death.
Across the nation, 36 states currently have a death penalty, while 14 states and the District of Columbia do not have capital punishment. Kansas joins at least seven other states this legislative session in considering the repeal of their death penalty laws. Currently, these states are Colorado, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Washington.

SENATE BILL 208 was assigned to the Judiciary Committee, where I sit as a member, along with 10 other senators. We heard testimony from a long list of proponents and opponents of the bill. Although the number of proponents greatly ex-ceeded the opponents, both sides presented compelling arguments.
Proponents of the bill, led by Senators Carolyn McGinn and David Haley, pointed to many flaws with the current system. Given the current financial predicament of our state, the proponents’ strongest argument focused on savings that could be achieved by eliminating the current flawed system. According to one study, death penalty cases cost the state, on average, $1.2 million, whereas non-death penalty cases cost $720,000. In addition to the financial perspective, many compelling moral and emotional arguments were made.
On the other side, opponents of the bill — those who support retention of the death penalty — challenged the legitimacy of purported cost savings and presented their own moral arguments. Led by representatives of State Attorney General Steve Six, opponents argued that Kansas’ death penalty statutes are among the most responsible in the United States, limiting capital cases to only the most heinous and cruel murders. Opponents also argued that even if some cost savings might result, justice should not be reduced to a cost-benefit analysis.
Following two days of vigorous testimony, the Judiciary Committee returned to SB 208 on Wednesday, March 4, to work the bill. Great care was given to ensure that any changes in the death penalty statutes would apply prospectively only, such that prior death convictions would remain unchanged in the interests of justice and the victims’ families.
Starting the committee’s final action process on the bill, I moved to recommend SB 208 favorably for passage to the full Senate. An opponent of the bill offered a substitute motion to recommend SB 208 for study this summer in an interim committee, which would effectively delay any consideration by the full Senate until next year. By a narrow margin, the committee voted 6-5 in favor of the substitute motion; thus, SB 208 appeared dead for this legislative session — but not for long.
On March 5, SB 208 received new life when one senator of the Judiciary Committee chang-ed his mind and requested a motion to reconsider. This relatively rare motion permits a member of the prevailing side, within one day of the previous meeting, to reconsider a motion passed in that previous meeting. With one senator changing sides, a new majority formed, and the committee voted 6-5 to reconsider SB 208. After a passionate discussion, the committee again voted 6-5 — along the newly formed majority — to recover SB 208 from “death row” in a summer interim committee; instead, the committee recommended the bill to the full Senate with the intent that it be heard.
For the latest developments on SB 208, you may track the legislation on the Kansas Legislature Web site, at www.kslegislature.org.