KET Legislative Coverage

The Future of the Capital Punishment in Kentucky

by John Gregory | 04/01/14 1:17 PM

Kentucky is among some 30 states that have the death penalty, yet a growing call to abolish executions could change how the Commonwealth punishes its most serious criminals. On Monday's Kentucky Tonight, Bill Goodman and his guests discussed the state's death penalty system and the challenges being mounted against it.

Three bills were filed in the current General Assembly session addressing capital punishment. House Bill 33, a bipartisan measure sponsored by Rep. David Floyd (R-Bardstown), and Senate Bill 77 would have replaced the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole. Senate Bill 202 called for a number of reforms to the state's death penalty system. None of the measures were heard by or came to a vote in their respective judiciary committees.

Former Kentucky Public Advocate Ernie Lewis noted the House bill sponsored by a Republican legislator. Lewis explained more conservative and libertarian groups are joining the abolition movement, some motivated by cost concerns and others worried about government mismanagement. "So in that sense, it's refreshing to see it not be a partisan issue, and maybe in the future it will be addressed more as a bipartisan issue."

The High Cost of Death Penalty Cases
Lewis said he believes Kentucky spends some $8 to $10 million a year prosecuting capital cases and housing death row inmates - expenditures he contends could be greatly reduced by abolishing the death penalty. Thirty-three people sit on death row in the state, including one woman and four African-Americans. One man, Gregory Wilson, has a death warrant pending, but that execution is on hold until a judge can review Kentucky's lethal injection protocol.

Jackie Steele, Commonwealth’s Attorney for Knox and Laurel counties, said the death penalty should be an option for prosecutors. He disputed Lewis' notion that simply abolishing capital punishment would save the state that much money.

"I don't know where there's going to be $8 to $10 million savings, as Mr. Lewis says, when there's still a crime," Steele explained. "There still has to be a trial, there still has to be attorneys appointed… There's still going to be the appellate process… You're still going to have incarceration costs for these individuals."

Those expenses are simply the price of maintaining a capital punishment system, said University of Kentucky law professor Paul Salamanca. He argued the citizens of the Commonwealth have decided to keep the death penalty, so they should be willing to pay that price - and he's willing to help uphold that choice.

"I see myself as defending the decision by the people of Kentucky to have capital punishment unless and until they change their minds," Salamanca said.

Life Without Parole
Other concerns about capital punishment range from the purity of the lethal drugs used for executions, to fears about how the death penalty is applied to minorities, the poor, or those who may have a mental deficiency. Roberta Harding, another professor at the UK College of Law, said abolishing the death penalty in favor of a sentence of life without parole would accomplish many of the same criminal justice goals.

"I think really, in my experience, the public is concerned about public safety," said Harding "They don't want to risk that person coming back [into the community] and that's why life without parole, for a lot juries, addresses our concern."

Both Harding and Lewis said they believe the U.S. Supreme Court will abolish the death penalty nationally before Kentucky lawmakers vote to ban capital punishment in the state.

Watch the full Kentucky Tonight program.