The death penalty is back — again

People take part in a candlelit vigil outside the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville during a scheduled execution Dec. 16, 2016. CNS PHOTO/JAMES RAMOS, TEXAS CATHOLIC HERALD

by Joe Bollig
joe.bollig@theleaven.org

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The death penalty is back.

Four months ago, United States Attorney General William Barr directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to adopt an execution protocol that will clear the way for five inmates to be executed.

The first inmate to be executed — Daniel Lewis Lee, who murdered a family of three — will take place on Dec. 9. 

The remaining four federal prisoners will be put to death by lethal injection during December and January. One of them, Wesley Ira Purkey, is from Kansas. His execution is scheduled for Dec. 13.

Each of the inmates has exhausted his appellate and post-conviction remedies, and there are no legal impediments to prevent their executions.

So, the death penalty is back — but in truth, it has never really gone away. More than 2,500 inmates are on federal, state and military death rows. The most recent execution was on Oct. 1 in Missouri.

Executions have been few, however, because of the lengthy and complicated appeals process — the reason most federal death row inmates die first of illness or old age.

Slow, complicated and expensive

The situation is not all that different for state prisoners in Kansas.

Deacon John Stanley, a retired attorney and coordinator of volunteers for the archdiocesan prison ministry, said there hasn’t been an execution in Kansas since 1965, despite the fact that the death penalty was reinstated 25 years ago.

“No case has yet completed the review process,” said Ron Wurtz, an attorney and vice chairman of the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

After a trial court imposes a death sentence, it must be reviewed by the Kansas Supreme Court. Because of the complexity of a death penalty case, the review process is similarly complex and time-consuming. If the court finds an error, the case is sent back for a do-over. And the process starts all over again.

Once the Kansas Supreme Court approves the trial process, there are appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

“If it is finally appealed on direct appeal, a second tier of post-trial review, commonly called habeas corpus, is begun,” said Wurtz, a member of Christ the King Parish in Topeka. 

“During that secondary review,” he continued, “the performance of trial and appeal participants is reinvestigated in minute detail and usually another trial on the question of counsel and court performance is had, followed by the same appeals processes that were done after the original trial.”

The oldest Kansas cases are just entering the post-trial habeas corpus phase. Separate lawyers must be retained for each phase so there is no conflict of interest.

The whole process is slow, complicated and expensive — and that is why there have been no executions in Kansas since the death penalty was reinstated in 1994 — and won’t be for a long time.

Little movement in the legislature

There have been efforts in the state Legislature to repeal or limit the death penalty since it was reinstated in 1994. 

None of those efforts has succeeded.

Four bills relating to the death penalty were introduced in the last session.  The two most important were identical bills in the House and Senate, HB 2282 and SB 21, that would have abolished the death penalty and created the crime of aggravated murder — the penalty being life without parole. 

“It was introduced and voted on in the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee,” said Wurtz. 

It came within one vote of being voted out of committee, but failed to pass.

The House bill will not return this coming session that begins on Jan. 13, but the Senate bill could be revived if there is sufficient support. Wurtz said there is significant support for a repeal bill, but he doesn’t know if there is “critical mass” to get the bill out of committee and passed.

The Catholic Church has always been supportive of repealing the death penalty in Kansas. In years past, representatives of the church, including Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann and the other bishops of Kansas, have offered testimony against the death penalty.

Those offering testimony during the last session in support of the House bill included Sister Therese Bangert, SCL, and John Shively for the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, and Chuck Weber for the Kansas Catholic Conference.

In his testimony, Weber said recent popes and bishops have come to believe that the use of the death penalty in the modern world is “undesirable and unnecessary,” and if society can “bring criminals to justice and protect society from unjust aggressors without resorting to their destruction, we should.”

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