HAZARD – Thirty-three people are sitting on Kentucky’s death row right now, awaiting the day when the state will end their lives by way of lethal injection. But there exists growing opposition to the state’s death penalty law, and some advocates working to abolish executions in Kentucky are optimistic it could become a reality.
Patrick Delahanty chairs the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, a consortium made up of partner organizations and individual supporters working to convince legislators the state’s death penalty law is unfair, costly, and unneeded. He said there will be legislation sponsored in the 2014 General Assembly seeking to end the death penalty, and he thinks it could actually happen by 2015.
“Most people are unaware that the death penalty is an issue because they don’t have death row inmates in their families, or they don’t have anyone in their family who’s been murdered,” Delahanty said. “It does affect them, because it costs millions of dollars to do this that could be used in other ways. It could be used for better police protection, or in areas of crime and those sorts of things.”
At present, executions in Kentucky are on hold as Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd reviews the state’s revamped lethal injection protocol, which previously involved a three-drug method. If Shepherd rules in favor of the state’s new method, Delahanty said it will open the door to more unnecessary executions.
“If he says the protocol is OK, we could be looking at a state that’s killed four people in 50 years,” he said, “to a state that kills seven or eight people in six to eight months.”
Delahanty cited a 2011 report issued by the American Bar Association, which he termed as “damning” in terms of Kentucky’s death penalty law, to illustrate why Kentucky should no longer be in the business of executing prisoners. The report was the culmination of a two-year review, and called for a temporary suspension of executions in Kentucky until “serious issues related to fairness and accuracy in the imposition of death sentences are addressed.”
Those issues included an error rate of 60 percent which led to 50 of the last 78 death sentences at the time being overturned on appeal. The report also took issue with a lack of data which can ensure executions are being carried out fairly and effectively.
Delahanty visited Hazard last week with Randy Steidl, who spoke at a meeting at the Mother of Good Counsel Catholic church on Friday about his experience as a death row inmate. Steidl was convicted in 1987 of murdering a newly married couple in Illinois. He was exonerated after 18 years in prison, including 12 on death row, after new information was discovered in his case.
“Had it not been for an honest state cop, after 14 years, who came forward with vital information, I’d be dead today,” Steidl said.
Steidl now serves as president of Witness to Innocence, a non-profit organization operated by exonerated death row inmates which seeks to educate people about the death penalty. He said there is a real movement in the nation to abolish executions, and said the fact that six states have abolished the death penalty in the past six years, including Illinois in 2011, is an indicator of how the public sentiment on executions is shifting.
The death penalty is not a deterrent and the system in which it is administered is flawed to the point that officials in Illinois could not guarantee that under their system an innocent man would never be executed, Steidl said.
“The error rate alone, from the beginning of a capital case to the very end, shows how flawed the system is,” Steidl added.
Capital cases are simply too costly from a financial perspective, Delahanty added. The Associated Press reported in 2009 that some lawmakers across the nation were looking at ending the use of the death penalty not on moral grounds, but for purely financial reasons as executing a prisoner was on average 10 times more costly than incarceration.
In most cases an execution will not bring closure for the victim’s family members, Steidl said, adding the process of putting someone to death can actually extend the family’s grief because it involves appeals and numerous court dates, oftentimes for many years before an execution is carried out. For Steidl, the alternative of incarcerating someone for life is a much harsher punishment than death.
“I feel like if you really want to punish a vicious person, you put them away for the rest of their life, make them think about what they did,” he said. “When they die, if they don’t repent, they burn in Hell. That’s punishment, because you can release an innocent man from prison, but you can’t release them from the grave.”
There is currently one death penalty case ongoing in Perry County in which 21-year-old Dalton Stidham is accused of shooting three people to death in January. Commonwealth’s Attorney John Hansen said neither the death penalty nor imprisonment are serving as deterrents to crime, but they do serve a purpose.
“I look at prison and the death penalty as simply the removal of bad people in the community,” Hansen said.
Hansen does not support an end to the death penalty in Kentucky. While he is aware some death row inmates have been exonerated, he noted in many of those cases the defendants were convicted years ago, and had they been tried under today’s judicial system, they may not have been convicted at all.
“The American jurisprudential system is the most protective system in the world for defendants of all races, creeds, and color,” he said. “Due process protections given to death penalty defendants are designed to protect at all costs the freedoms and due process rights of individuals charged with a crime.”
Delahanty said much of the opposition to abolishing the death penalty has come from the Kentucky Commonwealth Attorney’s Association, but according to Hansen, there are a lot of other people who do not support legislation that would end Kentucky’s death penalty.
“We have a whole General Assembly who are not all lawyers, not all commonwealth’s attorneys, that have allowed the death penalty to exist in Kentucky,” he said.