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Hearing Expected on Bill to Abolish Death Penalty in KY

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Kentucky lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee will hear testimony Wednesday at the state capital on a bill to abolish the death penalty. (Greg Stotelmyer)
Kentucky lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee will hear testimony Wednesday at the state capital on a bill to abolish the death penalty. (Greg Stotelmyer)
March 8, 2016

FRANKFORT, Ky. - A bill to abolish the death penalty in Kentucky will get a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday.

Supporters of the legislation say it's a sign of growing support for outlawing executions because bills to stop capital punishment haven't received a vote in the Kentucky General Assembly since 1976, the year the death penalty was reinstated in America.

During his 23 years as a judge in Jefferson County, Steve Ryan presided over three death penalty cases. Now retired, Ryan says the state should make life without parole the maximum sentence because the death penalty is not cost effective.

"We spend hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars prosecuting and defending death penalties," says Ryan. "Then after the penalty's over then you have the attorney general and Department of Public Advocacy filing the appeals, and they go on for 15, 20 years."

Ryan says the death penalty is against his religious beliefs, but he was sworn to uphold the law and did. He says he sentenced one man to death row and another to life in prison, while the third trial ended in a not guilty verdict.

Joe Gutmann, a former assistant prosecutor in Jefferson County, says he used to support the death penalty because he believed it was a deterrent to violent crime, would be applied fairly and no innocent person would be convicted and put to death.

But after handling numerous cases eligible for the death penalty, Gutmann says he realized that was a "mistaken belief."

"If the government were to put somebody to death who ultimately was not guilty, it would be the most egregious act the government could commit," says Gutmann. "Now, it wouldn't be done intentionally, but with the death penalty you have something that can't be corrected."

Gutmann says his message to lawmakers is, there should be zero margin for error. He notes 156 people have been exonerated from death row in America, including one in Kentucky.

Gutmann helped prosecute five death penalty cases, two of which sent men to death row. He says life without the possibility of parole can still be a "very harsh punishment."

"It's not a 'soft on crime' platform and some people confuse that," says Gutmann.

The House Judiciary Committee meets at noon tomorrow.



Greg Stotelmyer , Public News Service - KY