Senate bill fails; death penalty not eliminated

TOPEKA — An emotional debate Friday ended with the Senate keeping the state's death penalty on a 20-20 vote.

The tie vote meant rejection for Senate Bill 375, which would have replaced capital punishment with aggravated murder and a mandatory life sentence.

It's the second consecutive year the Senate has considered repealing Kansas' 1994 execution law.

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

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.

Earthly justice and religious faith were invoked by both sides.

Everybody has a different version of justice, said Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick. For some it is executing a murderer, hoping that will bring closure. For others, it is locking a murderer up in a tiny cell for life.

McGinn 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?"

Kansas' capital punishment law is among the nation's most stringent, its supporters said. Murder alone isn't enough to be put to death. Only the cruelest premeditated murders, multiple murders, contract killings or the murders of law enforcement officers are eligible.

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.

Kansas reinstated the death penalty in 1994, and 10 men are on death row.

The vote came after hours of debate and two attempts to scuttle the bill.

A proposal to table the debate and send the bill back to committee failed. Those pushing to table the debate argued it was unfair to drag victims' families through it when there appeared to be little chance the bill would pass the House and be signed by the governor.

"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 it out longer.

"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." Today is the deadline for bills to clear their chamber of origin; those that don't are considered dead for the session.

Schmidt, who controls which bills appear when on the calendar for debate, announced that the Senate would debate the proposal 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.

Cindy Sanderholm, whose daughter's killer is on death row, said she sent an e-mail blast to as many senators as she could Thursday night after finding out it could go to a vote.

"Hopefully, some of them got it and understood how we felt," said Sanderholm, whose 19-year-old daughter, Jodi, was abducted and murdered in Arkansas City in January 2007. Justin Thurber is awaiting execution for the crime.

Sanderholm said she believes the death penalty would be a deterrent to future crime if it were carried out more swiftly. Kansas has not executed anyone since 1965.

The Sanderholm family testified against the repeal this year, and Cindy Sanderholm said they would continue to do so if it comes up again.

"We'll keep going back every year, if we have to," she said.

Even if the bill had passed the Senate, House Speaker Mike O'Neal, R-Hutchinson, said it was unlikely the House would consider it.

Asked whether he thought most House members would vote to repeal capital punishment, O'Neal was succinct: "No."

Gov. Mark Parkinson, a Democrat, helped craft the state's death penalty law when he was a legislator. That leads many lawmakers to believe he'd veto any attempt to repeal it. But Parkinson said Thursday that he hadn't made a final decision.

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia do not have capital punishment. New Mexico is the most recent to join that number, having repealed its death penalty last year.

The Senate has debated the death penalty in three of the past five years. Supporters of capital punishment said they hope Friday's debate settles the issue. That's unlikely, considering how close the vote was.

"We knew going in the Senate was divided on this," said Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, who voted for the original law but has since changed his mind.

"The people of the state are divided on this."

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