LOUISVILLE (AP) — With a spate of botched executions across the country this year looming over their discussion, Kentucky lawmakers are revisiting some fundamental questions about the death penalty, including whether the state should keep it on the books.
Along with activists on both sides, a joint committee of 32 state representatives and senators planned to meet Friday in Paducah for a forum on whether executions should have a place in Kentucky’s criminal justice system.
Kentucky is a long way from becoming a rare Southern state without capital punishment. This gathering cannot set policies or make official recommendations, and efforts to repeal the death penalty haven’t gotten off the ground in recent attempts in the General Assembly.
The public hearing, however, is the first of its kind since Kentucky reinstated the death penalty in 1975, a four-decade stretch during which the state has executed three men, with 34 more people on death row.
The Rev. Pat Delahanty, a Roman Catholic priest who heads the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said that in his 25 years of anti-capital punishment work, this is the first time lawmakers given the issue such serious attention.
Kentucky has been under a court order since 2010 stopping all executions because of questions about how the state carries out the process, concerns that mirror those around the country over the sources, combinations, and methods of administering lethal drugs.
In January, an Ohio inmate gasped for nearly 30 minutes before dying of lethal injection. In April, an Oklahoma inmate died of a heart attack minutes after prison officials halted his execution because the drugs weren’t being administered properly.
Just last month, an Arizona inmate gasped and twitched for more than 90 minutes after receiving a lethal injection.
Even for some conservatives in Kentucky, where capital punishment has long held fairly firm support, the issue seems ripe for re-examining.
Rep. David Floyd, a Republican from Bardstown, south of Louisville and near Fort Knox, sponsored a bill to abolish the death penalty during the General Assembly session earlier this year. It never advanced to a vote, but prompted Friday’s hearing.
Floyd opposes the death penalty for a variety of reasons, including the cost and time it takes for cases to go through the appeals process and because of the number of death penalty convictions that have been overturned.
In 2011, the American Bar Association released the results of a two-year study on the death penalty in Kentucky; of 78 death penalty convictions studied by the ABA task force, 50 were later overturned on appeal or commuted.
“Conservatives in general have less trust in government,” Floyd said. “Why would we trust them in a matter of life and death? If people are given the opportunity to consider all those things, they may come to the same conclusion, that life without parole is a better option for Kentucky.”
Kenton County Commonwealth’s Attorney Rob Sanders wants to cut the cost of death penalty cases not by eliminating them, but by pushing the judiciary to move them through the system faster. Sanders has been pushing to end the case of 57-year-old Gregory Wilson since his conviction in 1988 of kidnapping, raping and killing 36-year-old Debbie Pooley a year earlier.
“We should be stepping on the gas, not the brakes,” Sanders said.
To Carolyn Marksberry of Warsaw, Kentucky, who survived an attack but saw two of her children killed by Marco Allen Chapman in 2002, the death penalty is useful “in the right circumstances.” Chapman was executed in 2008 at the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville, about 40 miles from Paducah in the state’s western end.
“I hope our lawmakers find a good solution to it if they have a problem with lethal injection,” Marksberry said.