Senate Committee Considers Bill to Abolish Kansas Death Penalty

The Kansas Senate Judiciary Committee is hearing from proponents and opponents of Senate Bill 208, which would abolish the death penalty.

(CBS/AP)

TOPEKA, Kan. - Should Kansas do away with the death penalty? That's the question before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senators are hearing arguments for and against Senate Bill 208.

The bill was introduced because some people say it is more expensive to impose the death penalty than to put someone behind bars for life. Others say the expense depends on the case, not the punishment.

Nine proponents of SB 208 delivered their testimonies at a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday morning. Those included Senator Carolyn McGinn; Senator David Haley; Richard Dieter, Executive Director, Death Penalty Information Center, Washington, DC; Sean O'Brien, Attorney, Kansas City, MO; Rebecca Woodman, Attorney, Lawrence, Kan.; Dr. Michael Birzer, Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty; Michael Schuttloffel, Executive Director, Kansas Catholic Conference; Duane Friesen, Mennonite Churches of Central Kansas; and Sue Norton, Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, Arkansas City, Kan.

Norton's life has been personally touched by the death penalty law.
Her dad and stepmom were murdered by a man who was later sentenced to death.

"I didn't want this man on the street, that's for sure. But I didn't want him to be dead either," Norton said during an emotional testimony to the Judiciary Committee.

After 13 years of appeals, Norton watched as the man who murdered her family was executed.

"It was devastating to watch a man be put to death by the state," she recalled. "Today, in 2009, I can truthfully tell you both my sister and I are broken women... We're not healed because that man was killed."

Opposing the senate bill, Kris Ailslieger, Assistant Solicitor General, Office of the Attorney General, said other victims' families may feel differently than Norton. He says for many, the death penalty is justice.

"Look at some of the brutal and barbaric crimes that have been committed. Choir boys don't make it to death row. You have to be a really, really, really heinous murderer to make it to death row," Ailslieger said.

Another argument Sen. David Haley (D-Kansas City) made for SB 208 was that the death penalty is too expensive.

"We're spending millions of dollars...for a policy that, though it sounds good and feels good, is costing us money that we do not have in this fiscal year and perhaps oulying years," Sen. Haley said.

Ailslieger says the numbers thrown out at the Judiciary Committee meeting are from a study that doesn't include all the factors, and notes that in the fine print. Numbers presented Thursday show death penalty cases costing a couple million dollars - in one case up to $7 million. Where as non-death penalty cases - where the convicted person was sentenced to life - cost between $550,000 and $750,000.

"Some of the non-death penalty cases were actually more expensive at trial than death penalty cases. Certainly some of the death penalty cases were more expensive, but that's because of the nature of the case, not the penalty side," Ailslieger said. "It really is the nature of the case that drives the cost, not the penalty."

Addressing the risk of executing an innocent person, Ailslieger said the innocent are cleared of the crime and not put to death, showing the appellate process works.

"With the technology these days I think it'd be very difficult to get an innocent person on death row," Ailslieger said. "And quite honestly, there has never been a confirmed case of an innocent person being executed. It's never happened."

Norton said the financial cost to the state is horrendous, but the emotional cost is even worse. She said during the execution of her parents' murderer, she was there for him because they had become friends.

"We don't have closure. That's what it's all about isn't it?! I don't have closure because now I'm dealing with another killing," Norton said.

There are eight states, including Kansas, that are going through efforts to appeal the death penalty. The law was re-instituted in Kansas in 1994, but hasn't executed anyone under the law since then. There are 10 people in the state currently on death row.

The committee meets again Friday to hear more arguments for and against the bill.


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