Eagle editorial: Don’t limit death-penalty appeals process

Trying to fast-track appeals risks more than the integrity of a death penalty conviction.
Trying to fast-track appeals risks more than the integrity of a death penalty conviction.

Even those impatient to see executions resume in Kansas should be wary of setting arbitrary time limits on the appeals process, as legislation in a House-Senate conference committee would do. And there are other concerns for Kansans to consider as next month’s 20th anniversary of the state’s death penalty approaches, including the law’s high costs.

As Rep. Steven Becker, R-Buhler, a retired district court judge, recently said: “When tinkering with the absolute punishment, we should be looking at ways to improve safeguards and decrease the likelihood of mistakes.”

Instead, Senate Substitute for House Bill 2389 sets a deadline of 3 1/2 years for the Kansas Supreme Court to hear death penalty appeals and limits the length of documents that can be filed in such appeals, among other accelerating changes. And in trying to save time the bill would cost money, requiring the budget of the Board of Indigents’ Defense Services to increase by $1.7 million for next year.

True, nobody would say the current law is delivering swift justice. The 22 senators and 67 representatives who voted for the death penalty in the 1994 legislative session – including future congressmen Jerry Moran and Todd Tiahrt, future Gov. Mark Parkinson and current Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita – couldn’t have expected that 20 years later, Kansas would have seen more than a dozen convictions but no executions.

Nine men are on Kansas’ death row, most of them housed at El Dorado Correctional Facility. Five convictions were reversed by the state Supreme Court on appeal. Several have taken the time-consuming trip to the U.S. Supreme Court, including the pending appeal of the man who killed Greenwood County Sheriff Matt Samuels.

But lawmakers upset by the lack of speedy executions should be just as eager to scrutinize the law for cost and fairness. Each death penalty case is three to four times more expensive than a life sentence case in Kansas, necessitating an average 23 more court days. And half of the death sentences have been handed down in Sedgwick County, which has the second largest population in the state, while fourth-ranked Wyandotte County has had none.

Former Kansas Secretary of Corrections Roger Werholtz testified to lawmakers earlier this month that money now devoted to death penalty cases would be better spent on indigent defense to ensure fair trials and on improving safety for corrections officers.

Talk of repealing the death penalty, as a neglected bill in the Legislature would do, can exacerbate the pain of those whose loved ones were killed. In the current Legislature, Sen. Greg Smith, R-Overland Park, has special standing to address the issue, because of his daughter’s rape and murder seven years ago. In one of his many poignant statements, he counseled his pro-repeal colleagues: “Stay out of it. The people of Kansas have spoken through their elected officials.”

But it’s been 20 years since the Legislature spoke as whole, and nearly 50 since Kansas last executed anyone. Trying to fast-track appeals risks more than the integrity of a death penalty conviction. As Werholtz said: “We simply cannot undo the consequences of a wrongful execution, or mitigate that.”

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman