Bill repealing death penalty in Kentucky flatlines in House Judiciary Committee

03/09/2016 04:35 PM

FRANKFORT — Legislation that would abolish the death penalty in Kentucky met defeat in the House Judiciary Committee on an 8-9 vote on Wednesday.

It marked the first time a legislative panel has considered a bill against capital punishment since its reinstitution in 1976, and that gives the House Bill 203’s sponsor, Rep. David Floyd, hope that one day Kentucky will outlaw the death penalty.

In his final session this year, Floyd said he would like to see another lawmaker champion the issue in the House once he’s replaced in the General Assembly.

“We were pleased in the first place that Chairman (Darryl) Owens allowed a discussion during a regular session and a vote on the bill,” Floyd, R-Bardstown, told reporters after the panel adjourned. “It’s rather historic. We haven’t done anything like this since 1976, when it was reinstituted.

“We had polled very closely, appealed personally and had so many people come to these individual legislators and ask them for their support of this. We had a good count. We knew that it wasn’t going to get through, but we had to give it a shot.”

Floyd said he modeled House Bill 203 on similar legislation sponsored by Senate Minority Caucus Chairman Gerald Neal in Senate Bill 41.

Floyd was joined by Marc Hyden of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, retired Jefferson Circuit Judge Steven Bryan and retired Assistant Jefferson County Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Gutmann in his testimony before the judiciary panel.

Hyden, the national advocacy coordinator for his group, said he had supported capital punishment in the past, but outlawing the death penalty makes both fiscal and social sense for like-minded conservatives.

“When I examined the facts I discovered that I could no longer support the death penalty in good faith,” he said. “Humans and governments as we know are fallible, but when you bestow the government with the power of the death penalty, then innocent lives are inevitably placed in peril. Prosecutorial misconduct, mistaken eye-witness testimony and faulty forensics guarantee that mistakes will continue to occur.”

Gutmann said he once supported the death penalty, thinking that the judicial system protected innocent people from execution.

He said that while he’s successfully argued to put men on death row, his thinking on the subject was wrong.

“As you think about your vote on House Bill 203, I ponder this question to you: What is the acceptable margin of error on a death verdict?” Gutmann asked. “Is it 10-to-1? Is it 50 guilty people to one innocent? Is it 1,000-to-1?

“I hope you come to the same conclusion that I’ve come to, that there is no margin of error when you’re considering the taking of the life.”

Floyd knew he faced long odds in getting HB 203 out of the judiciary committee, and some lawmakers on the panel made known that they believe in some cases, the death penalty is an appropriate punishment over life imprisonment.

Seven Republicans and two Democrats voted against HB 203, and Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, voted “pass.”

Rep. Robert Benvenuti, R-Lexington, said he “greatly” disagreed with the legislation “and I can tell you that it will never, ever have my support.”

Reps. Gerald Watkins and Johnny Bell said they could not remove a tool used to punish criminals who have committed heinous acts, instead locking them behind bars for the remainder of their lives.

One inmate on Kentucky’s death row “stabbed and killed a 5-year-old boy, stabbed and killed his 14 and 17-year-old sisters in their home” before raping and attempting to murder their mother, said Watkins, D-Paducah.

“When he thought she was dead, he set fire to their home and burned the bodies,” he said. “Another one on death row burglarized the home of a 73-year-old woman, beat her to death, then placed her body in the trunk of her own vehicle, drove to a rural area of Fayette County and set the car on fire.”

“It just doesn’t seem justified to me to go to commissary and eat potato chips and cookies, and you all know I’m telling the truth on that,” said Bell, a Glasgow Democrat and the House majority whip. “Maybe walk around the walking track and play some pool or something on life without parole. That just doesn’t seem balanced to me.”

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.

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