Kansas death penalty hearing touches deep emotions

This room at the Lansing Correctional Facility was the original location where Kansas prisoners sentenced to death would be executed by lethal injection.
This room at the Lansing Correctional Facility was the original location where Kansas prisoners sentenced to death would be executed by lethal injection. The Wichita Eagle

In a two-hour hearing of tearful testimony from families of victims and men falsely convicted of murder, state senators got their first look Thursday at a bill to repeal the death penalty in Kansas.

The far-ranging hearing touched on religion, retribution, cost and community.

Senate Bill 126 would eliminate the death penalty and establish life without possibility of parole as the maximum sentence Kansas could impose. The bill would prohibit the governor from reducing the sentence.

Wichita lawyer Steven Robison represented the Kansas Judicial Council, a group of judges and legal experts who research and recommend changes in the legal system. The council is updating a 2009 study on the cost of the death penalty compared with life sentences.

The council, neutral on the issue, found that in general a death penalty case is three to four times more expensive.

The average death penalty case takes 39.8 court days, compared with 16.8 for a life-sentence case, he said. Supreme Court justices spend five to 20 times as much time considering death penalty appeals as life-sentence cases, he said.

But the debate over cost gave way to the day’s more emotional testimony. Lawmakers asked few questions and mostly sat stoically as witnesses recounted personal and tragic stories of wrongful deaths and wrongful convictions.

Sen. Greg Smith, R-Overland Park, stepped down from the committee dais and testified as the father of a murder victim. He had heated words for unnamed colleagues who introduced the bill, which was filed as a committee bill and didn’t carry sponsors’ names.

“I dread these hearings, because some albeit well-intentioned misguided legislator that drafted this bill has hurt so many people,” he said. “You brought these families that experienced this right back into it again. And I blame you for that.

“Stay out of it. The people of Kansas have spoken through their elected officials. This (the death penalty) is the law.”

Smith, a former police officer, said his lifelong support for capital punishment was hardened by the murder of his 18-year-old daughter Kelsey seven years ago. She was kidnapped from the parking lot of a Johnson County Target and strangled after being raped and sodomized.

“And that person should be able to live? I don’t think so,” Smith said.

As Smith stood with her for emotional support, his wife, Missey, said the possibility of the death penalty had helped their family, even though the killer, Edwin Hall of Olathe, was plea bargained to a life sentence.

“Our daughter’s killer pled guilty to be shown the mercy that he didn’t show Kelsey,” she said. “I don’t have to deal with him ever again. … He would not have done that if he was facing life.”

Tears on both sides

Also testifying was the family of Jodi Sanderholm, a 19-year Cowley Community College dance student who was kidnapped and killed in 2007. Her body, desecrated with sticks and debris, was found in a wooded area near where her car had been sunk in a lake.

“How can anyone do anything like that to another person?” said her mother, Cindy Sanderholm of Arkansas City, during her tearful testimony.

She said she’s certain the man convicted and sentenced to death in the crime, Justin Thurber, is the actual killer. He is one of nine men in Kansas on death row.

“There was 100 percent DNA evidence it was Justin,” she said.

There were tears on the other side of the issue as well.

Mary Head of Lawrence cried as she recounted the murder of her sister, who was shot to death by an intruder as she slept in her home in Colorado in 1984. The crime was never solved.

Head questioned why a state would devote the resources it takes to prosecute and carry out a death sentence, rather than using those resources to investigate unsolved crimes and support victims and families.

“Extra time, money and resources go into these case, but for what purpose?” Head asked the committee.

Wrongly convicted

The committee also heard from two men who were wrongly convicted of murders and later freed after new facts came to light.

One was Eddie Lowery, a former Fort Riley soldier who spent 10 years in Lansing state prison for murder and rape. He was later exonerated by advanced DNA testing.

Lowery said he was a naive 22-year-old who admitted to a crime because he was worn down by eight hours of continuous and aggressive questioning, during which he was threatened and denied food, water or the opportunity to contact his company commander or a lawyer.

“I did the only thing that I knew would get me out of that room – I told them what they wanted to hear,” he said.

Lowery said his first trial ended with a hung jury, but he got a life sentence in the retrial.

Ten years later, DNA evidence not only proved his innocence but identified the real killer, who was convicted.

He said he probably would have been executed before he was exonerated if the death penalty had been in force when the crime occurred.

“If the flaws that happened in my case somehow make their way into someone’s death penalty case, the state of Kansas could commit one of the gravest miscarriages of justice imaginable,” he said.

The moral case against the death penalty was carried by several pastors and legislators past and present.

Former Rep. Anthony Brown of Eudora urged the predominantly Republican lawmakers to bring the same views to the death penalty as they do abortion.

“To me, that is the genesis of this whole argument, is the value of life,” said Brown, who served from 2004 to 2012. “If we continue to have a death penalty law on the books, to me that challenges at least my position as a pro-life legislator, or former legislator.”

Archbishop Joseph Naumann, leader of the Catholic archdiocese of Kansas City, Kan., said the church’s position is that the death penalty should be used only in poor societies that lack the means to protect themselves by locking a murderer away for life. That’s not the case in the United States.

“What is not debatable is the finality of the death penalty,” he said. “This is a question of what is best for our society, even when faced with these very dark events.”