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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Rally today seeks end to death penalty

BY RON SYLVESTER
The Wichita Eagle

Jeremy Schroeder said the most surprising result of Illinois abolishing the death penalty was how quickly the state saw an impact.

Within weeks, the state had $7 million more after the public defender's office cut the death penalty defense unit it no longer needed when lawmakers struck down the law on capital punishment in July.

"We always used to talk about how much money you'd save by abolishing the death penalty, but it was pretty shocking that it so quickly changed," said Schroeder, the attorney who led the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

Schroeder hopes to give a push to Kansas' efforts as one of the speakers in the Rally for Repeal at 1 p.m. today in Wichita.

Donna Schneweis, chair of the board for the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty, said she thinks this state is close to following Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, Iowa and a dozen others as states that have abolished capital punishment.

"The Senate tied (on a repeal bill) in 2010, and the House is beginning to come around, and we're working with them," said Schneweis, a nurse. "We're going to continue to build on this momentum until we get rid of this thing."

Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, is also scheduled to speak at today's three-hour event to rally support against the death penalty.

Schroeder said public sentiment against capital punishment is turning faster than lawmakers, who worry about holding onto their elected offices.

"Politicians are a little behind the times thinking they have to be in favor of the death penalty or they'll look soft on crime, and that definitely has changed," Schroeder said. "As it's changed, I think we're going to see politicians realize that the death penalty is not that decisive of an issue, politically, as it has been."

A survey late last year by the Death Penalty Information Center showed about two-thirds of registered voters said a lawmaker's vote to repeal the death penalty would not affect their support at the polls.

Attempts to abolish the death penalty in Kansas have focused on cost.

Death penalty cases in Kansas cost about a half-million dollars more than those where the defendant does not face execution. That's according to a 2003 state study, which remains the most recent comprehensive information available.

In Sedgwick County, six people have been sentenced to death, but three sentences were changed to life in prison without parole under later plea deals.

"But you still spent the money to seek the death penalty," Schneweis said.

Schroeder said tight state budgets proved to be the tipping point for lawmakers in Illinois.

"This is a time we're shutting down schools, like many states," he said. "When you put it to people that way, they're shocked. It's a no-brainer. You get rid of the death penalty."

Illinois' bill included a provision to divert money saved on the death penalty to police training and services for crime victims.

Ten men await death sentences in Kansas, which hasn't carried out an execution since 1965.

Reach Ron Sylvester at 316-268-6514 or rsylvester@wichitaeagle.com.

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