Kentucky’s death penalty reviewed in Frankfort

Published: Jul. 6, 2018 at 9:35 PM CDT
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Kentucky has had one death verdict in the last five years for a reason, the state’s chief public defender told state lawmakers Friday.

“The reason is Kentucky juries, when they get a case, they do have the mentality ‘This is for the worst of the worst,’ and Kentucky juries by and large are not returning death verdicts,” Public Advocate Damon Preston told the Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary. Only three people have been executed in Kentucky since 1976, he said, with the last execution in 2008.

Preston said death penalty trials and appeals are expensive, adding that the estimated cost of a capital case handled by his agency post-conviction runs around $555,600.

But prosecutors testifying before the committee pointed out the costs that victims of violent crime and their families pay—costs that the death penalty is often used to address.

Casey and Adair counties’ Commonwealth’s Attorney Brian Wright, who has obtained at least two death sentences in Kentucky, said input from a victim’s family is often considered when prosecutors weigh whether to seek the death penalty.

“It’s most important to look at those cases when you’re in the trenches—when you can sit down and visit with families and understand the significant impact on a family when they’ve lost, in a case that I prosecuted, three loved ones—a mother, a father and a son (who) were all murdered in their sleep in their home,” said Wright.

The defendant in that particular triple-murder case was also convicted of soliciting another murder in another county, said Wright. Given that kind of history, Wright said the court felt that the capital punishment was appropriate.

“It takes into account all the facts and circumstances, not just of the case but of the defendant but –very importantly—the victims and their families,” he told the committee.

A defendant must have committed certain offenses to qualify for “aggravated sentencing” which includes the death penalty, life without parole, or life without parole for 25 years in qualified cases of murder or a kidnapping in which a murder occurs, said Warren County Commonwealth’s Attorney Chris Cohron, who testified alongside Wright.

The list of “aggravating circumstances” is short, Cohron said, and includes factors like committing the offense for monetary gain or committing an act that was intentional and caused multiple deaths.

Cohron said those are “difficult situations, to say the least.” He said he dreaded having to file a notice to seek the death penalty when he was first elected Commonwealth’s Attorney. But he said he knows that the state listens carefully to the defense and wants to ensure any mitigating evidence is considered when such cases are warranted.

“The 57 elected Commonwealth’s Attorneys throughout this commonwealth take painstaking efforts to make sure that the only cases we are seeking this penalty for are those that, without question, deserve it,” said Cohron.

Rep. Jason Petrie, R-Elkton, asks representatives for the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet earlier in the meeting what the future of the death penalty should be in Kentucky. Cohron said the process should be examined, but that the death penalty should not be abolished.

“On behalf of my jurisdiction and Mr. Wright’s jurisdiction, and the Kentucky Commonwealth’s Attorneys Association, we still believe that the death penalty is a necessary and viable option for litigation in the Commonwealth of Kentucky,” he told lawmakers.

Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville, a critic of the death penalty who testified alongside Preston, had a different answer for Petrie.

“It’s not consistently applied,” Nemes said of the death penalty. “What do we do with the death penalty? Kentucky should get out of the business of killing its citizens – period.”

Senate Minority Leader Ray S. Jones, D-Pikeville, said the fact that only a few people in Kentucky have been executed since the 1970s doesn’t make the death penalty much of a deterrent. In some ways, he said, it presents a “false hope of closure.”

Jones said that the appeals process in death penalty cases needs to be thorough, but that it also needs to be expedited.

“We need to keep in mind that there are people who commit heinous, egregious acts who deserve the ultimate punishment but what we’re doing in Kentucky is not working and it needs to be looked at,” said Jones. “We need to look at ways, if we’re going to continue to make the death penalty available, that it’s done in a timely manner.”

Currently in Kentucky prosecutors have filed notice of their intent to seek the death penalty in 52 cases, said Preston. There are another 62 cases in which notice of intent to seek death may possibly be filed, and 49 more cases where there are aggravating factors present but for which the death penalty is not being sought, he said.