Kansas introduces bill to abolish death penalty

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Lawmakers, faith leaders and activists convened at the Kansas state capitol to hear testimonies both for and against the death penalty on Feb. 13. Kansas is currently deliberating on House Bill 2167, which was introduced — with bipartisan support — in the House on Jan. 25 and aims to abolish the death penalty in the state and replace it with life imprisonment without parole.

The Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice heard seven people testify their support for the bill, as well as accepted the written testimonies from more than 20 other individuals to support it. Some of the individuals writing their support for the bill included exonerees Floyd Bledsoe, Eddie Lowery and Darryl Burton — all men who were wrongly convicted* in Kansas and Missouri. Five different families of murder victims also wrote in their support for the bill.

Donna Schneweis, board chair of the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty, represented the coalition at the hearing and reported that the room was "packed" with supporters of the bill.

"It is quite impressive how many Kansans from so many backgrounds came forward to speak up for abolition," Schneweis told NCR following the hearing.

Schneweis said that she was particularly moved by the testimony of Msgr. Stuart Swetland, president of Donnelly College.

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"Opposition to the death penalty in no way lessens one's awareness of the evil that some are capable of committing. It does say that there is a better way. Death should never be seen as a solution to our problems; and it is not the solution to violent crime," Swetland was quoted as saying at the hearing.

No persons testified in person either against the bill or expressing neutrality to it. However, a few provided their written testimony to the committee. Kim Parker, the former chief deputy district attorney for Sedgwick County, provided the only neutral testimony. Those providing testimony against the bill were Derek Schmidt, Kansas attorney general, and Larry Heyka and Amy James, both murder victim family members.

Members of the Committee did not take a vote following the hearing.

This isn't the first time such a bill has been brought to the floor of the Kansas state government. In 2010, the senate was one vote short of replacing the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole according to the Catholic Mobilizing Network.

The current proposed bill was introduced and sponsored by eight Republican and seven Democrat representatives early this year. Robert Dunham, the executive director of the non-profit Death Penalty Information Center, sees the bill as a reflection of the emerging trends in terms of death penalty legislation.

"The only states that are left that are seeking to abolish the death penalty require bipartisan support for abolition efforts to succeed," Dunham said. "Opponents of the death penalty are moving away from the traditional, moral, economic and racial fairness issues to making arguments based on government overreaching. Do we trust the government to get the policy right?"

"The Kansas approach with Republicans taking the lead in a bipartisan effort is what we would expect to see … in the new landscape," he continued. "That is, as fiscal and philosophical conservatives view the death penalty pragmatically instead of ideologically, they are concluding in greater numbers that the death penalty is a failed public policy. It's costly and ineffective for purposes of sound fiscal management, as well as because of the inability to fairly administer it and the risk to innocent lives."

If the bill were to pass, it would not be applied retroactively, leaving the 10 inmates currently on death row still eligible for the death penalty. However, the state hasn't executed anyone since 1965.

Kansas' relatively small death row and lack of executions "shouldn't be a surprise," Dunham said.

"The single most likely outcome of a capital case is not that they'll be executed," he added. "The single most likely outcome is that the sentence will be overturned. Kansas sends relatively few people to death row, and there continues to be significant issues in those cases. So we can expect that the majority of Kansas cases will continue to be overturned."

"Now that's where Kansas gets another one of the patterns that we see in states that have gone to abolition. States that abolish the death penalty typically have small numbers of death sentences resulting in few, if any executions. And after a certain period of time the death penalty begins to look like it doesn't serve any purpose."

Dunham compared the proposed bill to the bill that was successfully passed in Nebraska in 2015 — which was later repealed in a referendum vote Nov. 8, 2016 — and a bipartisan bill that is currently moving through the Washington state senate. When asked about the chances that the Kansas bill will pass, Dunham said he doesn't "think you can predict that."

"What you can say is that there are a number of similarly situated states and there are bills moving forward, or bills that are introduced in a number of them," he said. "There will be close votes and it is impossible to predict what the results will be. Montana is another state that fits the profile that Kansas does. There was no opposition to the bill in the course of the public hearing. … It was a close bill but the bill did not move forward."

"Whether [the Kansas bill] succeeds will depend on local factors. Individual legislatures decide after their constituents talk to them," he said.

[Kristen Whitney Daniels in an NCR Bertelsen editorial intern. Her email address is kdaniels@ncronline.org.]

* Editor's note: An earlier version of the story incorrectly reported that Eddie Lowery was convicted of murder. He was convicted of rape.

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