death penalty

The Death Penalty In Kentucky: Stayed And Uncertain

Aug 12, 2016

The mention of “death row” conjures images of inmates pacing in their cells, awaiting executions. But in Kentucky, defendants have little reason to fear the needle.

Most, if not all, of the state’s death row residents will never see the execution chamber.

Lengthy appeals and a shortage of lethal injection drugs mean Kentucky’s death row inmates remain in prison indefinitely. And even if inmates want to be executed, the state’s court system would not allow it.

While this delicate death deliberation plays out, millions of public dollars are spent each year to sentence defendants to death, though legislators, criminal justice experts and others know such a sentence is mostly futile.

This process plays out as the United States continues to grapple with capital punishment amid a sea change of sorts. Executions across the country reached a 24-year low in 2015. Legislators in several states, including Kentucky, are considering bills to repeal the practice. Polls show public support of the death penalty is waning, wrongful convictions are in the national conversation and lethal injection drugs are under heavy scrutiny.

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After decades of defending capital punishment, some conservative Republicans are walking away from the death penalty.

In Kentucky, lawmakers such as Rep. David Floyd, a Nelson County Republican, now oppose executions on grounds of fiscal responsibility and pro-life values.

For Floyd and others, the decision pits two traditional Republican planks against each other: a tough-on-crime, law-and-order platform versus a conservative fiscal approach.

In red states both big and small, bills to abolish the death penalty are becoming more common.

“There’s been a complete change of discussion nationally,” said Marc Hyden, the national advocacy coordinator for Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. “These are some very strong feelings of fiscal responsibility and pro-life views.”

Floyd’s bill to abolish the state’s death penalty has never made it past committee, but there are signs that more Republican support could help turn the tide in their favor.

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A new poll shows Kentuckians overwhelmingly support prison time over capital punishment for people convicted of first-degree murder.

Findings from a recent poll by the University of Kentucky Survey Research Center show nearly 58 percent of people surveyed believe that lengthy prison terms, including life without parole, are preferable to the death penalty as punishment for conviction of first-degree murder.

Kentuckians also overwhelmingly support a halt to executions until problems with the state’s capital punishment system are addressed, according to the survey. More than 72 percent said they would support a decision by the governor to block executions until issues with the system could be addressed.

“It is important to note that this new poll shows that Kentuckians are increasingly concerned about the fairness of our criminal justice system,” said Marcia Milby Ridings, former president of the Kentucky Bar Association, in a news release.

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After years of efforts, a bill that would abolish the death penalty in Kentucky received its first legislative hearing on Wednesday, but it failed to advance the House Judiciary Committee by one vote.

The bill would have replaced the death penalty with life without parole.

“We have tried to perfect the system, but human beings are flawed and we make mistakes,” said Rep. David Floyd, a Republican from Bardstown and the bill’s sponsor. “When the state imposes a death penalty it will never be perfect, it never will be so and we have to acknowledge that.”

Kentucky has executed three people since it reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Joe Gutmann, a former assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Jefferson County, said he used to argue capital punishment cases but lost faith in the process.

“The fact that an innocent person could have been killed in carrying out a death sentence proves the stakes being so irrevocably high that our law must be changed,” Gutmann said.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 156 people sentenced to death in America since 1973 have been acquitted, had charges dismissed or pardoned.

About two-thirds of Kentuckians support capital punishment, according to a Bluegrass Poll from 2013.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed today to review Oklahoma's method of execution by lethal injection. The justices agreed to hear the Oklahoma case a week after refusing to halt another execution that used the same drug formula.

Kentucky Latest State to Renew Debate Over Death Penalty

Aug 13, 2014
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Allen Ault admits to being a murderer.

But Ault isn’t behind bars, nor was he tried for his “crimes." He’s currently dean of Criminal Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University. But as Ault told an interim joint committee on the judiciary earlier this month, he considers his actions as a director of corrections akin to premeditated murder.

“I have murdered five people as an agent of the state,” he said.

Ault said that many of his former colleagues have committed suicide or retreated into drugs to cope with their actions

“Corrections officials are expected to commit the most premeditated murder possible,” he said. “I mean, I had a policy book that thick. We rehearsed it. How premeditated could it be?”

Debate Over Kentucky Executions Begins Again

Aug 1, 2014

Kentucky lawmakers are set to embark on a discussion of whether executions should have a place in Kentucky's criminal justice system and, if so, how should it be carried out. The Joint Legislative Committee hearing set for Friday morning in Paducah comes amid the backdrop of a spate of botched executions around the country this year.

Kentucky is a long way from becoming the rare southern state without capital punishment. Friday's meeting can't set policies or make official recommendations. Efforts to repeal the death penalty haven't gotten off the ground in recent attempts in the general assembly.

The public hearing, however, is the first of its kind since Kentucky reinstated the death penalty in 1975, a four decade stretch during which the state has executed three men, with 34 more people on death row.

Kentucky LRC

State Sen. Gerald Neal, a Democrat from Louisville, plans to introduce a bill in January to abolish the death penalty.

It’s legislation Neal has brought to Frankfort before. He tells the Messenger-Inquirer objections to the death penalty come from many different angles – including religious and constitutional concerns.  But he approaches it on a cost basis, arguing life in prison costs Kentucky less money and achieves the same objective of removing the offender from society.

A legislative committee on judicial issues is set to meet Friday in Paducah, and is expected to discuss the death penalty.

Judge Concerned About 1-Drug Execution Method

Jul 9, 2014

A Kentucky judge has expressed concerns about the state's plan to use a single drug to carry out lethal injections after the same method resulted in problems in neighboring Ohio.

The issues raised Wednesday by Franklin County Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd could further delay Kentucky's ability to carry out death sentences and prolong the decade-long legal fight over how the state puts condemned inmates to death.

Shepherd told attorneys during a brief hearing in Frankfort that he may set a hearing about the state's proposal but didn't immediately set a date.

Ohio inmate Dennis McGuire repeatedly gasped and snorted and took 26 minutes to die during an execution in January.

Kentucky is seeking to implement both one- and two-drug lethal injection methods. Shepherd halted all executions in the state in 2010.

Tennessee's governor has signed a bill that would allow the state to use the electric chair if lethal injection drugs are unavailable.

A spokesman for Republican Gov. Bill Haslam confirmed to The Associated Press that the legislation had been signed after passing the state Senate by a 23-3 vote and the House by a 68-13 margin.

The AP reports:

Kentucky LRC

A national conservative group says the effort to get rid of the death penalty in Kentucky is picking up substantial bipartisan support.  But legislation to repeal capital punishment failed to gain much traction in this year’s legislative session.

In the House, a bill to ban the death penalty was introduced by Republican David Floyd of Bardstown; in the Senate, Democrat Gerald Neal did the same. But neither piece of legislation received a hearing.  

Marc Hyden with the group “Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty”, says while progress may be slow, he says within five years, the death penalty could be gone in Kentucky.  He says it’s a rare issue on which Republicans and Democrats can work together.

Hayden rejects the notion that the death penalty is a deterrent.

Courts To Hear Two Kentucky Death Row Cases

Mar 10, 2014

The Kentucky Supreme Court is set to hear an appeal in the long-running case of an escaped inmate from an Oklahoma prison facing a death sentence in the fatal kidnapping of a Kentucky distillery worker. A federal appeals court, meanwhile, will hear the case of a Kentucky death row inmate convicted of killing two people in Louisville later this year.

The state justices will hear the case of Michael Dale St. Clair on March 13th in Frankfort. St. Clare is appealing the conviction and sentence out of Hardin County in the 1991 kidnapping of Francis "Frank" Brady of Bardstown. Prosecutors say St. Clare and an accomplice snatched Brady from a rest stop along I-65. Brady was later found shot to death in neighboring Bullitt County.

St. Clare has also been sentenced to death in Bullitt County on a charge of murder. The justices heard an appeal in that case in February.

Two Kentucky lawmakers have introduced bills that would eliminate the death penalty and replace it with life without parole.

Democratic Sen. Gerald Neal of Louisville and Republican Rep. David Floyd of Bardstown say the justice system is flawed and should not have the power to take a felon’s life.

Corrections data provided by the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty shows that 14 death penalty cases have been overturned since 1983.

Neal says he has also filed a resolution in the Senate that would create a task force to examine the cost of capital punishment to taxpayers. It's been estimated to cost an average $10 million each year.

“Whether you’re for it or against it, that’s one thing or the other," the Jefferson County Senator said. "But let’s understand the cost to the taxpayer because it impacts more. I guess the bottom line is, I think, as I talk individually with some members of the chamber, I think that argument is gaining some traction.”

Some commonwealth’s attorneys maintain that capital punishment acts as a deterrent on crime, a point that Neal and Floyd disagree with.

Kentucky may find out Monday if the state can resume carrying out death sentences.  A hearing will be held in Frankfort on the state’s request to lift an order barring executions. 

Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd halted all executions in 2010 after finding issues with Kentucky’s three-drug method for lethal injections. Attorney for death row inmates argued the three drugs caused an unnecessary risk of pain.

Earlier this year, the state switched to one or two drugs, depending upon the availability of the drugs. 

Governor Beshear has requests to set execution dates for condemned inmates Robert Foley and Ralph Baze, but the governor has given no indication if or when he will act on those requests should the injunction be lifted.

Kentucky has executed three inmates since the death penalty was re-instated in 1976.  The last was in 2008.

Two-thirds of Kentuckians support the death penalty as an option for murderers and oppose replacing it with a sentence of life in prison without parole. The Courier-Journal Bluegrass poll of 609 registered Kentucky voters shows 67 percent support capital punishment, while 26 percent oppose it.

Nationally, several states have been rethinking the death penalty in light of cases where individuals on death row were later exonerated. Two bills have been filed in this year’s General Assembly that would abolish the death penalty. In previous legislative sessions, efforts to end the state’s capital punishment system have received little support.

The latest survey doesn’t show much change from a 1997 Bluegrass Poll that showed 70 percent of Kentuckians backing the death penalty.