The Kansas Senate will debate the repeal of the state’s death penalty, possibly as soon as next week.
In a key vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced legislation that would eliminate capital punishment and replace it with life without parole. But the change wouldn’t impact the 10 men now on death row, whose sentences would be carried out.
“This is truly life and death that we’re talking about,” said Sen. Tim Owens, an Overland Park Republican. “We need to have a vote.”
A similar bill made it to the Senate floor last year before being sent back for further review.
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Kansas enacted its current death penalty law in 1994. No one has been put to death in Kansas in more than 40 years.
Opponents to the repeal say there’s virtually no chance it could pass both the Senate and the House and get the signature of Gov. Mark Parkinson.
Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, an Independence Republican, tried but failed to table the bill to avoid what he said will be a fruitless debate.
“I don’t know if there are enough votes in the Senate to advance the bill or not but I don’t believe it’s going to reach the governor’s desk,” Schmidt said.
The committee vote was 7-4. Those voting yes were Senators Owens, John Vratil, a Leawood Republican; Mary Pilcher Cook, a Shawnee Republican; Les Donovan, a Wichita Republican; David Haley, a Kansas City, Kan. Democrat, Dwayne Umbarger, a Thayer Republican, and Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat.
Haley, a longtime death penalty critic, noted that today is Kansas Day, the 149th anniversary of Kansas joining the union as a free state.
"I'm reminded of What Kansas is, and what we stand for," he said. "We have values in this chamber, and as a state, that I hope we live up to."
Voting no were Senators Schmidt; Terry Bruce, a Hutchinson Republican; Julia Lynn, an Olathe Republican; and Jean Schodorf, a Wichita Republican.
Lynn said she believes the public supports the death penalty.
"The people have spoken on this issue, and those people were the jurors" who approved death sentences, she said.
To ensure that those sentenced to life without parole really do the time, Pilcher Cook successfully amended the bill to prevent governors from commuting their sentences.
Groups opposed to the death penalty had argued that its ability to deter crime is unproven, and that the lengthy legal appeal process makes it more expensive than life sentences.
The families of murder victims, however, argued the death penalty can prevent painful trials by prompting murderers to plead guilty to avoid the possibility of a death sentence.
Schmidt said the Senate has not yet scheduled a time to debate the death penalty, but that it could come as early as next week.