Kentucky death penalty review sought
Some see bill as push for abolition
FRANKFORT, Ky. -- As a young prosecutor, John Palmore sent a convicted killer from Henderson to the electric chair in 1962, believing it was the right thing to do.
Now Kentucky's former chief justice isn't so sure.
"I'm not so hot for it anymore," Palmore, 89, said of the death penalty. "I don't know that it accomplishes anything."
Repealing the death penalty remains a tough task politically in Kentucky, which hasn't executed anyone since 1999.
But opponents say the state should at least review how it is implemented -- something last done more than 40 years ago.
A measure filed in the current legislative session by Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, calls for a task force of lawmakers, lawyers and court officials to examine the death penalty and report to the General Assembly.
It would consider such issues as whether capital punishment deters crime, is applied fairly and is still acceptable to the public.
A review is long overdue, Burch and others told the House Judiciary Committee last month.
"We're the only industrialized nation in the world that still kills our citizens," Burch said.
Burch's measure, House Concurrent Resolution 88, still may be taken up this session by the House Judiciary Committee, according to its chairwoman, Rep. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington.
But if it isn't, Stein said she would recommend that the committee study it before next year's session.
The proposal has prompted strong reactions from families of murder victims.
Nancy Rowles of Covington, who talked of her brother's murder while speaking at last month's hearing, said she favors a sentence of life without parole for convicted killers.
"My personal preference would be that there be no more violence in my name," she said.
But Jo Ann Phillips of Louisville, whose daughter was murdered in 1990, said she's tired of arguments against the death penalty.
"The point is that the punishment fits the crime," Phillips, who is executive director of Kentuckians' Voice for Crime Victims, said in an interview.
House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, has called the proposed study a subterfuge -- saying that supporters really want to abolish the death penalty.
"If there's a bill to abolish the death penalty, we just need to vote on it," he said during a Feb. 26 hearing.
But Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, D-Lexington -- a former prosecutor who said he once supported capital punishment -- said the issue bears study.
"We want to make sure we are not making mistakes," said Crenshaw, who said his doubts came after defending a young man who was charged with murder in a capital case but was cleared before the trial.
Kentucky is one of 38 states that use the death penalty. Currently, there are 40 inmates on death row, 10 of them African American or Hispanic. The state has executed 101 people since 1930, 54 of them white and 47 black.
The death penalty was suspended in all states after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down capital punishment nationwide in 1972 on grounds that it was applied arbitrarily. Two years later, Kentucky enacted a law to reinstate the death penalty under Supreme Court guidelines.
Since then, two men have been executed in Kentucky, one in the electric chair and one by the current method, lethal injection.
Defendants can be sentenced to death for murder or kidnapping with aggravating circumstances -- when the crime takes place in conjunction with other offenses, such as rape or arson.
Ernie Lewis, head of the state Department of Public Advocacy, the state's system of public defenders, said people who wind up on death row almost always are impoverished, mentally disabled or severely impaired by drug or alcohol abuse.
A disproportionate number of people sentenced to death are minorities, he said. About 22 percent of those now on death row are African American, in a state with a black population of about 7 percent.
Lewis also noted that several Kentucky inmates have been released in recent years after DNA or other evidence showed they were innocent.
"It is a matter of time before someone is exonerated on Kentucky's death row," he said.
But Rob Sanders, commonwealth's attorney for Kenton County, representing the state's commonwealth's attorneys, told the committee that the proposed study "will do nothing more than assist death penalty appeals."
If the study is authorized, he predicted, every death row inmate will use it to try to delay execution by arguing that the study might support abolishing the death penalty.
The state's last review of the issue -- in 1965 -- concluded that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crimes such as murder and that retaliation against a killer does not justify the death penalty. A majority of the state commission that studied the issue then recommended abolishing the death penalty.
Palmore said he agrees -- even though he realizes some crimes are so brutal that execution seems justified.
"It wouldn't bother me at all if executions were abolished," he said. "I still have that feeling that comes from childhood that some people are so bad, that they have done such bad things, that we ought to get rid of them. But there are some things you can't get rid of."
Reporter Deborah Yetter can be reached at (502) 582-4228.