Leitchfield republican senator aims to abolish Kentucky’s death penalty

Senator Stephen Meredith hopes to abolish the death penalty in Kentucky
Published: Feb. 6, 2023 at 4:12 PM CST|Updated: Feb. 6, 2023 at 4:26 PM CST
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LEITCHFIELD/FRANKFORT, Ky. (WBKO) - Part two of Kentucky’s legislative session reconvenes on Tuesday, Feb. 7 and one senator hopes the bill he’s sponsoring regarding the death penalty will push through both chambers this time.

Senate Bill 45 is sponsored by Republican Senator Stephen Meredith of Leitchfield. The legislation would replace the death penalty with life in prison without parole.

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“This bill is about the third or fourth time that I’ve sponsored it,” said Meredith.

He went on to say that he hasn’t always supported abolishing the death penalty.

“When I was younger, I was in support of that belief. I thought you kill a person, you get what you deserve. As I’ve gotten older, I understand how precious life is,” said Meredith.

He says at 70 years old he realizes that his passion for this bill stems from his pro-life beliefs.

“I can’t say that I’m pro-life ‘except’ -- there should never be an exception. That’s how precious life is. And if we would hold it in that such high esteem, yeah, I think the world would be a much better place,” said Meredith. “I just can’t believe again, as an extension of my Catholic faith that if Jesus Christ ever was asked to do make a decision about taking somebody’s life, because I’ve taken someone’s else, I don’t think he would ever say, Yes, do that.”

He also brings up concerns about wrongful convictions for inmates on death row. An analysis from Science.org predicts more than four percent of death row inmates may be innocent.

“If I had a family member that was a victim of homicide, I can understand why people would want vengeance, I truly can. Sometimes we get it wrong. And then we’ve taken an innocent life. And that’s never justifiable, either. Plus, you know, there’s the fiscal impact of it,” said Meredith.

Two of the 26 inmates on death row were convicted of crimes that took place in southcentral Kentucky.

On Feb. 26, 2003, William Meece shot Joseph and Elizabeth Wellnitz and their son, Dennis Wellnitz, in their home, in Columbia. Meece was originally indicted in Adair County; however, on June 30, 2006, a change of venue was entered, and the case was moved to Warren County.

Meece was convicted of 3 counts of murder, burglary in the 1st degree, and robbery in the 1st degree. He was sentenced to death on November 9, 2006, in Warren County.

The other local death row inmate is identified as Robert Woodall. On Jan. 25, 1997, he abducted a woman named Sarah Hensen from a Minit Mart parking lot in Greenville. It was reported that he drove to Luzerene Lake in Muhlenberg County where he raped, beat, and stabbed Hensen. He then reportedly threw her body into the water. An autopsy report said her cause of death was drowning.

Woodall was sentenced to death on Sept. 4, 1998, in Caldwell County for capital murder, capital kidnapping, and first-degree rape.

Executions have decreased drastically in Kentucky since 1977 with the last execution taking place in 2008, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Meanwhile, Meredith anticipates SB 45 to face an uphill battle again this year given all the bills filed this session and the opposition to this legislation.

“Someone, some group will challenge it. So it’s never an easy process,” Meredith said.

Senator John Schickel is a retired law enforcement officer and supports the death penalty. Meredith expects Schickel to file a bill opposing SB 45 this session.

Executions in Kentucky remain on hold because of court orders. In 2010 Franklin Circuit Court Judge Philip Shepherd ordered a stay of executions, and in 2019 a circuit court order from Judge Shepherd struck down the state’s protocols after challenges from Baze and other death row inmates.