Repeal of death penalty fails in Kansas Senate

TOPEKA — A bill repealing the death penalty failed in the Senate this afternoon, on a 20-20 vote.

Senate Bill 375 would have eliminated the death penalty for crimes committed on or after July 1, 2010. The proposal would have replaced capital punishment with the crime of aggravated murder, which would carry a mandatory sentence of life in prison.

Kansas reinstated the death penalty in 1994, and 10 men are on death row. The state's last execution was in 1965.

Supporters of capital punishment have contended that justice should not come with a price tag and the death penalty acts as a deterrent to violent crime.

Although the deterrent effect might be slight, as long as it might be there, Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita, said, he would vote to retain the death penalty.

Opponents of the death penalty point to studies that show violent crime has not dropped significantly since Kansas implemented the death penalty and note that capital punishment cases cost about $500,000, or 75 percent more, to prosecute than other cases.

The high cost leads to other inequity, said Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick. Only larger counties can generally afford to prosecute death penalty cases. "In rural areas, they don't have the money to try a death penalty case."

That money could be diverted to programs that helped solve cold cases or stop domestic violence, she said.

Everybody has a different version of justice, she said. For some it is executing the murderer, hoping that will bring closure. For others, it is locking them up in a tiny cell for the rest of their life. McGinn also said voting to end the death penalty fit with her pro-life stance.

"We pass abortion laws because we say child of God," she said. "Please somebody, although these people become terrible people, tell me at what point in time did they lose that status and who made that decision?"

Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, contended that her support of capital punishment fit with her pro-life stance, "because they have taken the life of someone who God created. There should be a unique penalty for that."

Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood, noted that in other states, death row inmates had been exonerated.

"Unless a wrongfully convicted person is put to death, we at least have an opportunity to correct those mistakes," he said.

An early on attempt to table the debate and send the bill back to committee, which would have effectively killed the debate for this year, failed to garner enough votes.

Those pushing to table the debate argued it was unfair to drag victim's families through the debate when there appeared to be little chance the bill would pass the House and it was uncertain the governor would sign it.

"For me the right thing to do is to stop this now — we do this by sending it back to the committee — and be done with this discussion," said Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, R-Independence.

Other lawmakers noted that tabling the discussion would simply draw out the discussion.

"If we don't finish what we started today and have a vote on this issue, I'm almost certain it will be back next year so the family of victims won't have the closure that they desire," Vratil said. "They won't be able to move on because we are going to have this debate every year until we finally finish it and have a vote on it."

Other lawmakers complained that they had not expected such an important bill to be up for debate on the last day of turnaround week. Saturday is the deadline for bills to clear their chamber of origin; those that don't are considered dead for the session.

Schmidt, who controls what bills appear when on the calendar for debate, announced that the Senate would debate the proposal to abolish the death penalty as lawmakers were preparing to leave late Thursday.

Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, R-Grinnell, called the debate "probably the most important thing we can discuss." He had thought the issue was dead for the session and had hoped to make it home to go to a granddaughter's basketball game, he said.

A second amendment offered by Schmidt would have eliminated the language that abolished the death penalty in the measure. That failed on a 20-20 vote.