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'In Cold Blood' lawyer supports Kansas death penalty

GARDEN CITY, Kan. | Rather than abolish the death penalty, Kansas lawmakers ought to make more crimes eligible for capital punishment, according to the prosecutor in one of the state's most infamous murder cases.

Duane West, who was Finney County Attorney when Richard Hickock and Perry Smith were sentenced to death for the 1959 murders of the Clutter family in Holcomb, a crime that became infamous in the novel "In Cold Blood."

The Kansas Senate is scheduled to debate a bill that would end the death penalty Monday as a cost-cutting move. But West said they ought to be making the law stricter.

"They need to get busy and make it stronger," West said. "I think a lot more cases ought to qualify for capital murder than do."

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, sponsored a bill that would eliminate executions for offenders sentenced after July 1, 2009. Supporters say it would save the state money in a year when Kansas faces a potential $650 million deficit.

In a 2003 report, the Death Penalty Information Center, an anti-capital punishment group, said the median cost of a death penalty case in Kansas was $1.26 million, compared to $740,000 for non-capital offenses. The report also argued that investigation, trial and appeal costs run significantly higher in capital cases.

Smith and Hickock shot Holcomb farmer Herb Clutter, his wife, Bonnie, and two children, Nancy and Kenyon, because they thought Clutter had a large amount of cash in a safe concealed in the residence.

West said he believes imposing the death penalty on Smith and Hickock for the Clutter murders was the right thing to do.

"It's not an easy thing to sit in a quiet corner of your mind and have to contemplate doing that," West said. "But when I took my oath of office as the county attorney of Finney County, it was my sworn duty to uphold the law and protect the public. Ultimately, I felt like asking the jury for the death penalty was the proper thing to do.

"I felt we could do without these two people walking around on the face of the Earth anymore. I did not feel the decision was wrong and they have not killed anyone else since then — that's the main thing."

West said preventing criminals from killing again is especially important in cases such as the current death penalty case pending in Reno County against three former Hutchinson Correctional Facility inmates accused of murdering a fellow inmate.

"What punishment is there in (prison)?" West asked. "I think it's very important that people realize they could face the death penalty if they decide to do that thing, and I think it's a matter of protecting society."

West said the argument that death penalty cases cost more than housing inmates is a smokescreen because virtually all murder cases are appealed.

"From a dollars and cents standpoint it's not the death penalty that's the biggest factor, they're going to have that expense one way or another on appeals," West said.

If it really is a matter of money, West said, he would be willing to help.

"If it takes a little extra money to make sure they don't breathe the same air and enjoy the same sunshine that I do, then it's OK with me — pass the hat and I'll put in some money," West said. "I'm sure a lot of other people would, too."

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