Kansas will consider abolishing the death penalty next year as death sentences are declining across the United States.
Fewer people were sentenced to death this year than any other year since 1976, according to a report released Friday by the Death Penalty Information Center.
The report cites 106 new death sentences handed down in 2009, compared to 111 in 2008. Both are down significantly from a decade ago, when 284 death sentences were given out.
Sen. Tim Owens, R-Overland Park, has scheduled four days of hearings beginning Jan. 19 on a new bill that would eliminate the death penalty in Kansas.
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A Kansas Judicial Council advisory committee of lawmakers, judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers helped rewrite a bill sponsored last year by Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick.
But Kansas' top prosecutor said this week he wants to see the death penalty continue.
"I think it's a just punishment for what those folks did," Attorney General Steve Six told The Eagle.
Cost a factor
More people were put to death nationwide this year (52) than last year (37), Friday's report said.
The report attributed the increase to four months in 2008 when states halted executions while the U.S. Supreme Court weighed a challenge to lethal injection. The high court found the method was not cruel and unusual punishment, allowing executions to continue.
The push against the death penalty, however, moved from the courthouse to the statehouse.
This year, 11 states considered bills to abolish the death penalty. New Mexico became the 15th state to repeal it, following an effort by a coalition of churches.
The high cost of the death penalty is often cited as the reason for dwindling support by lawmakers faced with tightening state budgets.
It costs more to prosecute someone for capital murder and seek the death penalty than it does for murders resulting in life imprisonment, studies show.
"High expenses with no measurable benefits were frequently cited in legislative debates about the death penalty," said Friday's report by the Death Penalty Information Center.
The center does not specify an opinion about the death penalty but has been called anti-capital punishment.
In Kansas, seeking the death penalty costs four times more in legal fees than not pursuing it, according to a report released earlier this month. Figures were compiled by the state's indigent defense fund.
Imprisoning an inmate facing a death sentence also costs more, according to the Kansas Department of Corrections. It takes an additional $1,000 a year to keep an inmate in the isolation cell blocks required for death penalty inmates rather than in the general prison population.
Those figures were part of a report from the Judicial Council's Death Penalty Advisory Committee, which rewrote the bill to abolish the state's death penalty. The Judicial Council analyzes legal issues for the state Legislature and Supreme Court.
Two Wichita-area cases demonstrate the discrepancy.
Romaine Douglas was convicted of killing two people in 1999. He received a life prison sentence with no chance of parole for 100 years.
Gavin Scott was convicted of killing two people in 1996. He received a death sentence, which was overturned on appeal. He is set to face another capital punishment sentencing before a jury in April.
Neither one was the most expensive — or least expensive — case of its kind, according to the Judicial Council report.
If Douglas lives to be 79 — the average life expectancy for an American male — the state will have spent about $243,884 to convict him, deal with appeals and keep him in prison.
So far, the state has spent $750,074 to pursue the death penalty against Scott.
Learning curve debate
Six, the state's attorney general, said it's not fair to put a price on these crimes.
"You're talking about three or four cases a year, so cost should not be a deciding factor," Six said.
Kansas has 10 people on death row and hasn't executed anyone since 1965.
So far, three death penalty cases have been decided by the Kansas Supreme Court. All have been reversed because of legal errors by judges, lawyers or juries.
Six said costs will decrease in the future because decided case law makes the trials more efficient.
"We're learning from our mistakes," Six said.
That hasn't happened in other states, said Ron Evans, head of the Kansas Death Penalty Defense Unit.
Evans has tried capital cases in Oklahoma and Kansas. He pointed to states such as Florida, which has had the death penalty since 1972. It has executed 68 people since 1979 and has 403 people on death row.
Friday's report estimates Florida spends $51 million a year on the death penalty at a cost of $24 million for each execution.
"In no state has it proven to be cheaper the longer you have it," Evans said. "It doesn't matter whether it's your fifth, 15th or 50th case. The death penalty is still more expensive."