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Public Opinion and Legal Experts' Review of Death Penalty Signal End?

December 12, 2011

FRANKFORT, Ky. - "Broken beyond repair" is how death penalty abolitionists describe Kentucky's system of capital punishment. They believe results of a two-year review of the death penalty by legal scholars, attorneys and former Kentucky Supreme Court justices signal it is time for an outright ban of state executions.

A recent report by the American Bar Association (ABA) Kentucky Assessment Team on the Death Penalty concluded that the Commonwealth should temporarily suspend executions until problems with fairness and accuracy are corrected.

Donald Vish, director of education and advocacy with the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, says the report's conclusions were of no surprise, and prove the system is incapable of delivering justice.

"While we agree with the call for a moratorium, I think one group hopes to be able to fix the problems during the moratorium, while we hope that the General Assembly will determine that it should be abolished altogether."

A recent survey commissioned by the ABA found that 62 percent of Kentucky voters support suspension of executions in Kentucky. The 500-page review found no uniform standards on eyewitness identifications and police interrogations, and a high error rate in death sentences, with more than 60 percent overturned on appeal.

Kate Miller, a program associate with the ACLU of Kentucky, says the frequency of inadequate counsel in handling capital cases is also evidenced in the report.

"Of the 78 people who have wound up with death sentences, 10 of those individuals were represented by attorneys who were later disbarred, and we know the public defenders are overworked and underpaid."

The study also found that Kentucky lacks safeguards to ensure that defendants with mental disabilities are not put to death.

Vish points out that jury sentencing patterns over the last several years show Kentuckians' discomfort with exacting capital punishment.

"What do ordinary Kentucky citizens do? They're impaneled on a jury; they determine that the defendant is guilty. They do not impose the death penalty. That seems to be the ultimate public opinion poll."

Kate Miller says the legal teams' recommendations for addressing the system are too complex and expensive, and that leaves room for only one solution.

"The death penalty system has failed as public policy. Especially since a majority of Kentuckians don't want the death penalty anymore, it's time we just take it off the table permanently."

Legislation to ban executions of people with severe mental illnesses and to abolish the death penalty altogether are expected to come before the Kentucky General Assembly when it convenes next month.

The report is available at http://ambar.org/kentucky.

Renee Shaw, Public News Service - KY