Kansas has a death penalty in theory. It does not have a death penalty in practice, although capital punishment has been back on the books in Kansas since 1994 and there currently are nine men on death row. Each complex phase of each case seems to churn up new legal questions, leading to more delays in realizing lawmakers' goal of making execution available for the "worst of the worst" criminals in Kansas.
Especially each time another heinous murder occurs — and they show no signs of ceasing, death penalty law and all — Kansans on either side of capital punishment find common ground in wondering what purpose the death penalty is serving, except to consume tax dollars. A 2003 study indicated that Kansas' capital cases cost 70 percent more than noncapital cases.
The realization that dollars being spent on death penalty cases might be better used, especially during this budget crisis, was part of what inspired state Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, to introduce a death penalty repeal during the past session.That bill deserves a second look.
And a new national survey by the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, titled "Smart on Crime: Reconsidering the Death Penalty in a Time of Economic Crisis," raises more cost-benefit questions about capital punishment. Among its valuable findings — that police chiefs would rather see more resources spent hiring law enforcement officers and countering drug and alcohol abuse.
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The only person largely satisfied with the Kansas law's disuse may be Gov. Mark Parkinson, who pushed for the death penalty as a legislator because he saw it as a tool to coax murder defendants into pleading guilty and accepting long prison sentences. But even Parkinson has expressed a willingness to re-examine the law. And Parkinson's original motivation itself is worthy of rethinking: Should the best argument for capital punishment be its power as a plea bargaining chip?
Should the death penalty survive the next legislative session, it deserves to become a campaign issue during the 2010 gubernatorial campaign and later, especially if Sen. Sam Brownback wins the job. The Republican told The Eagle editorial board several years ago that he'd come to see the death penalty as something that should be applicable to a "very narrow category of individuals," mentioning only Osama bin Laden by name.
Brownback said: "My own view of that has tightened a lot to where I only support capital punishment in cases where we cannot protect the society from the individual. ... Where I think we have difficulty is continuing to try to push and to talk and to teach and to be in the culture with a culture of life, and still using a death penalty on a broad basis."
That principled view will put Brownback at odds with many of his pro-life brethren, but it's worthy of debate, especially if he becomes the state's chief executive.
In any case, Kansas should not let another 15 years go by — and more millions of dollars go by the wayside — before it seriously reassesses whether its death penalty is worth having.