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Calls Intensify for Execution Moratorium in Kentucky

PHOTO: The call for a moratorium on Kentucky's death penalty has intensified after two separate courts overturned the convictions of death row inmates last week. Photo credit: Greg Stotelmyer.
PHOTO: The call for a moratorium on Kentucky's death penalty has intensified after two separate courts overturned the convictions of death row inmates last week. Photo credit: Greg Stotelmyer.
February 23, 2015

FRANKFORT, Ky. – On back-to-back days late last week, separate courts overturned convictions in two cases of men on Kentucky's death row.

Those reversals have amplified calls from critics of the state's death penalty system to at least place a moratorium on executions.

Retired law professor Linda Ewald was co-chair of an eight-person team of lawyers and retired judges that found a multitude of problems with Kentucky's death penalty system. The group’s American Bar Association report was issued in December 2011.

"I'm disappointed that the governor didn't suspend executions, although we haven't had an execution in many years," Ewald says.

In reversing the death penalty conviction of Michael St. Clair on Thursday, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled evidence was "improperly admitted" during his trial. On Friday, a federal appellate court ruled in Roger Wheeler's case that a potential juror was "erroneously struck from the jury."

Ewald says the ABA report she coauthored uncovered 95 specific concerns about Kentucky's death penalty system.

"Well, I think it's a bit disconcerting that Kentucky has the death penalty and that we've assessed this in such a way to demonstrate that there are very serious problems in its administration," she states.

Ewald says she's encouraged by legislation (SB190) filed earlier this month by state Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, which attempts to address lineups, interrogations, eyewitness testimony and biological evidence.

"I think it's a little misleading to say nothing has been done,” she says. “I think people are working on this. These are changes that are going to require legislation. They're going to require changes in court rules. They may require public hearings."

Ewald adds while Kentucky was at the forefront in passing a post-conviction DNA testing law, problems remain with how biological evidence is handled after a trial.

"Unfortunately, Kentucky doesn't have any uniform protocols for preserving and retaining evidence after a conviction,” she says. “And so, there's the risk that it's not being maintained properly. There's the risk that it's lost and won't be available. "

The ABA report called the system "broken and fatally flawed," but Ewald says it was not, in her words, "an abolition document."

She says the report did not address whether Kentucky should have a death penalty.

Greg Stotelmyer , Public News Service - KY