TOPEKA — Kansas senators on Thursday approved a measure shortening the time for inmates to appeal death sentences to the state Supreme Court, despite concerns from opponents about the state rushing to judgment.
The 27-13 vote sent the bill to the House for consideration. The measure is the first significant change to the death penalty appeals process since capital punishment was reinstated in Kansas in 1994.
The measure creates a 3 1/2-year time limit for the appeals to be heard and decided by the court. It also sets limits on the length of documents that can be filed in death penalty appeals to the state court, and requires the appeals to be placed ahead of all other cases pending before the justices.
The measure would not affect any subsequent appeals, including those made to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Supporters have argued that the Kansas death penalty process was taking too long to get from a capital murder conviction to an execution. No one has been executed in the state since 1965. Nine men are under death sentences in state prisons, and no execution dates have been set because appeals are still pending in state courts.
Sen. Greg Smith, vice chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said legislators should not focus entirely on those sentenced to death but also on the families of victims who have to wait for justice to be carried out.
“My aye vote is for the forgotten voices, the voice who is never heard in the chamber,” said Smith, R-Overland Park, whose daughter was abducted and killed in suburban Kansas City in 2007.
Edwin Hall pleaded guilty to capital murder, rape, sodomy and kidnapping to avoid the death penalty and is serving life without the possibility of parole.
“We talk of the injustice of the process, protecting the rights of the accused or the pace of proceedings,” Smith said. “We don’t talk about the immoral, vicious slaughter of the victims.”
Opponents argued the changes weaken the death penalty’s integrity and increase the chances an innocent person will be executed. Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, said the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1980s that death penalty procedures must “aspire to the highest standard of reliability.”
“As a supporter of the Kansas death penalty law, I believe that passage (of this bill) would severely weaken the very integrity of those statutes,” Holland said.