Potential changes to death penalty in Kentucky gaining traction among lawmakers

08/01/2014 04:20 PM

PADUCAH — By the statements and reactions from lawmakers at Friday’s Judiciary Committee meeting, Kentucky’s legislature is unlikely to abolish the death penalty any time soon.

But a more than two hour meeting on the future of capital punishment revealed a growing consensus that Kentucky leaders must move to make changes to the system. That includes adopting some of the recommendations the American Bar Association made its review of Kentucky’s system in 2011.

For instance, Kentucky doesn’t require the preservation of DNA evidence even in capital cases. Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, has pushed legislation in recent sessions to implement many of those recommendations.

“Whether or not you support capital punishment or not, this bill needs to happen,” Webb said Friday after the committee meeting at Western Kentucky Community and Technical College. “I’m encouraged by the informational hearing today.”

The judiciary committee chairmen from both chambers, Democratic Rep. John Tilley and Republican Sen. Whitney Westerfield — both of Hopkinsville, assembled six panels offering different perspectives on the death penalty. Religious leaders offered differing interpretations from the Bible about the morality of the death penalty. Officials debated the cost to taxpayers for executions and the appeals process. And family members of murder victims shared their views on the burdens they bore.

Perhaps the most startling testimony came toward the end of the meeting from Allen Ault, a former corrections commissioner in Georgia, Colorado and Mississippi who now serves as dean of the college of justice and safety at Eastern Kentucky University.

Ault opened his remarks by announcing, “I have murdered five people as an agent of the state.” He went on to call capital punishment “the most premeditated murder possible.”

A majority of those who presented in front of the committee argued for abolishing the death penalty, although Westerfield and Tilley repeatedly said other lawmakers and experts who support the death penalty declined invitations to appear.

One prosecutor, G.L. Ovey, the commonwealth’s attorney from the 56th District, said for the most brutal and unrepentant convicted criminals “the only just penalty is the death penalty.”

He recounted the case of Kevin Dunlap, who was sentenced to death for the 2008 killings of three children and attempted murder of their mother in Roaring Springs, as the Kentucky New Era has reported

Dunlap pleaded guilty to breaking into Kristy Frensley’s home and binding and raping her. He then waited until Frensley’s three children got home from school and fatally stabbed them. After slicing their mother’s throat, Dunlap set the house on fire. Kristy Frensley managed to escape.

“In all of our discussions, we somehow forget. We look at the defendant, but we don’t look at the Kristy Frensley’s of the world,” Ovey said.

Ben Griffith, whose brother was murdered in 1986 in Missouri, told the committee, though, that the execution of his brother’s killer brought anything but closure. Instead, he said it forced the family to again relive the emotions brought on by the murder.

“We do not want more killing done in our name,” Griffith said.

Democratic Sen. Gerald Neal of Louisville and Republican Rep. David Floyd of Bardstown have become the most prominent advocates in the General Assembly for abolishing the death penalty. Both testified that they initially supported capital punishment but eventually changed their minds. They said it didn’t make sense for moral reasons, financial reasons or for the fact that the death penalty rarely is applied so that only the most heinous criminals who have admitted guilt are sentenced to death.

Even some of those lawmakers who say they see a role for capital punishment acknowledged that the system must change at least to add more safeguards against innocent people landing on death row, which prompted other states like Illinois to ban the death penalty.

And Westerfield said he left with much more to weigh as he continues to reassess his support for the death penalty.

Kentucky currently cannot carry out executions. Franklin Circuit Judge Philip Shepherd issued a stay on executions in 2011 until a legal challenge to using lethal injection works its way through the court system.

Currently, 32 men at the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville and one woman at the Institute for Women at Peewee Valley are on death row.

J. Michael Brown, the secretary of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, said it costs the state $140,000 extra per year beyond the costs of other inmates for the Kentucky State Police to operate death row.

But Brown, citing his constitutional oath as justice secretary, declined to give his opinion to the committee about whether the death penalty should continue to be used.

That, he said, is for the General Assembly to decide.

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