by Steve Buckner
Special to The Leaven
TOPEKA — Don’t expect a repeal of Kansas’ death penalty law in 2022.
Kansas Legislature leaders have informed the Topeka-based Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty that two bills backed by the coalition will not be voted on this year. The two bills — one in the House; the other in the Senate — will have been stymied for two years if no action is taken on them.
Still, KCADP board member Ron Wurtz remains positive about future progress on the hot-button issue.
“[Legislators] have indicated that come next year, they expect it to be reintroduced and we’ll have a better chance of moving it,” he said. “The bill in the House has bipartisan sponsorship. We’re hopeful.”
Currently, nine people are on death row in Kansas, said Diane Garlock, a KCADP board member from Leavenworth.
The hope that Wurtz professes is grounded in his Catholic faith and current events.
“Virginia, one of the oldest and most prolific users of the death penalty, repealed it last year,” he said. “It’s happening across the country. And it will happen in Kansas, too.
“If good people stand up and express their beliefs, things will change.”
History and faith
Change has served as a constant regarding the death penalty in the United States in the past half-century. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death penalty in 1972. In the 50 years since, state legislatures across the nation have voted to bring back the death penalty, with Kansas joining those ranks in 1994.
Wurtz, a retired federal assistant public defender, said the Supreme Court’s 1972 decision noted the application of the death penalty was random, like “a lightning strike.” The court pointed out that someone who committed a capital crime at one time or place would be executed, and a person who did the same in a different time and place would not.
“It’s just totally unfair,” said Wurtz, who with his wife belongs to Christ the King Parish in Topeka.
Sister Therese Bangert, a Sister of Charity of Leavenworth and a KCADP board member, said the coalition brings this issue before Kansans and their legislators “with the conviction that Kansas does not need a death penalty law to keep citizens safe and victims remembered and honored.”
Naturally, both Sister Therese and Wurtz, draw heavily on their Catholic faith when working for the repeal of the death penalty.
“The foundational piece of all Catholic social teaching is the dignity of every human being, from womb to tomb,” said Sister Therese.
“To me, I firmly believe that life is not to be taken by anyone other than the giver of the life,” he said. “When I read the New Testament, Christ sat down with sinners, he didn’t sit down with kings.”
Justice and innocence
The KCADP formed in response to the Kansas Legislature’s attempts to bring back the death penalty even before it was finally successful in 1994. Sister Therese said KCADP’s mailing list contains 1,235 addresses.
Wurtz retired in 2013 and has campaigned heartily against the death penalty ever since.
“It is my mission, my ministry, my passion — a stubborn hobby,” he said. “It’s been part of my life so long that it is my life. My kids, when it comes time for my birthday present, give a donation to the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty in my name.”
“To me, if you’ve studied the death penalty at all, it is the most unjust sector of the criminal justice system,” Wurtz added. “It is racist, it takes resources away from other places where it could do more good and it discriminates in many factors.”
Sister Therese has witnessed 50 or more people on this journey in the last 30 years who have lost loved ones to homicide.
“They say, ‘Don’t kill for our loved ones. It does not respect or honor them at all,’” she said.
Garlock explained that no study exists that indicates the death penalty deters people from killing other people.
“It does not have an effect in terms of reducing the number of murders,” she said. “The death penalty costs far more than a life in prison. The families of victims are not helped by the death penalty. Findings show it does not change their level of grief, and they have to repeatedly show up in court.”
Nationally, 56 elected prosecutors have signed a document against the death penalty, Garlock added. Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann put out a statement calling the death penalty “immoral” in his former role as chair of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
And Sister Therese added that more than 155 people have been released from death row because they were later found innocent of their alleged crimes.
For some people on death row, the findings of innocence came too late.
“There have been innocent people who have been executed — not in Kansas, but it has happened across the country,” Wurtz said.
He added that Catholics should pray that “true justice and Christ’s mercy be observed in our criminal justice system at large — that it were colorblind, blind to wealth or poverty [and] that everyone receives fair treatment when they run afoul of divine law or criminal law.”
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