Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Senator Webb files bill to reform Kentucky’s death penalty laws

Senator Robin L. Webb, D-Grayson, has filed a bill to reform Kentucky’s death penalty process to ensure an innocent person is not executed.

“If you have the death penalty in the commonwealth, we need to make sure it is administered in a fair and just way,” said Senator Webb, who is a practicing attorney. “There is a humanitarian aspect to this in additional to a fiscal impact to the state. We’ve had a lot of litigation over our manner of execution.”

The American Bar Association released an intensive report in December 2011outlining a myriad of problems with Kentucky’s death penalty. It cited 95 specific things that need to be fixed. Senate Bill 190 is a response to the reasoned recommendations of the ABA Assessment Team, which included two retired Kentucky Supreme Court Justices, a former chair of the House Judiciary Committee, distinguished law professors and respected bar leaders, all from Kentucky. This was the most extensive study and analysis of the manner in which the death penalty is administered in Kentucky that has been undertaken.

“The Kentucky Death Penalty Assessment Team, sponsored by the American Bar Association, spent over two years studying virtually every aspect of the administration of the death penalty in the commonwealth,” said Linda Sorenson Ewald, co-chair, Kentucky Penalty Assessment Team. “Our review led us to the inescapable conclusion that our current system is deeply flawed and in serious need of reform. The Kentucky Assessment Report was released over three years ago and, to date, not a single recommendation has been implemented. Senate Bill 190, introduced by Senator Robin Webb, is a significant step forward in addressing some of the most critical problems of our capital system. Something must be done immediately. We cannot continue to close our eyes to the unfairness of our current practices and procedures and to the risks of executing an innocent person.”

Senator Webb’s bill calls for more law enforcement training in the use of lineups, interrogations and mental health issues. It would also require judges to have training in recognizing cognitive disabilities and mental health issues.

The bill also addresses the growing use of DNA in criminal prosecutions and in exonerating inmates on death rows across the United States. SB 190 would move the state crime laboratory to an independent office in the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, develop law enforcement training relating to biological evidence and ensure defense attorneys have equal access to DNA testing. Senator Webb said one important goal of the legislation is to make sure biological evidence is preserved.

SB 190 builds on legislation from 2013 (House Bill 41) that allowed people already convicted of a crime to get evidence in their cases tested for DNA. That process is known as post-conviction DNA testing.

It would also set minimum standards for both defense attorneys and medical examiners involved in death penalty cases. That’s in addition to creating guidelines for the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in capital cases.

“This legislation is not to abolish the death penalty,” said Senator Webb, “but rather recognizes that if we have the death penalty, it must be done right. We must make sure that any deficiencies in the administration of the death penalty in Kentucky are corrected.”

The assessment team found that from 1976 to November 2011, 78 people were sentenced to death and 52 of these individuals had a death sentence overturned on appeal or federal courts, or been granted clemency. Just last week, there were two additional cases of men on Kentucky’s death row having their convictions overturned by two separate courts. Within the period from 1976 to 2011, the assessment team found an error rate of 67 percent.

“Since 1976, there has been one involuntary execution in Kentucky while we have had most death sentences reversed because of grievous errors at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. Since 2011 we have Kentucky legal experts telling us through a comprehensive Program Audit that we have to make many changes to fix the broken system. Last week there were two additional reversals of Kentucky death sentences because of mortal errors. A majority of Kentuckians support a suspension of executions to allow time for problems within the system to be remedied. The time is now to reduce the error, waste, and abuse with the common sense reforms in Senator Webb’s SB 190,” said Ed Monahan, public advocate, Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy.

Others also lend their voices in support of SB 190.

“The Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty appreciates Senator Webb's willingness to limit the possibility of wrongful convictions in Kentucky's death sentencing process. Until full repeal is possible, and Kentucky gives up on the death penalty, as did Justice Harry Blackmun and The American Law Institute, Senate Bill 190 is a step in the right direction,” said the Rev. Patrick Delahanty, chair, Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

“In December of 2011, the Kentucky Death Penalty Assessment Report pointed to numerous ways in which the death penalty in Kentucky was broken, and called for a temporary suspension of executions unless the problems were addressed. If enacted into law, Sen. Webb's SB 190 would go a long way toward ensuring fairness and reliability in Kentucky's death penalty procedures. Unless SB 190 is passed, the problems addressed in the 2011 report will continue to call into question whether Kentucky can have a constitutional death penalty,” said Ernie Lewis, KACDL legislative agent and former Kentucky Public Advocate.

SB 190 has been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee.