Legislative Panel Learns of Kentucky Death Penalty Flaws

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday heard from representatives of a  team of expert legal minds who conducted a two-year review of Kentucky’s death penalty. They found serious flaws at almost every leg of the process.

The American Bar Association selected review team members from around the state who have experience in capital cases. They included justices, trial court judges, law professors, and other attorneys. Former state lawmaker and Middlesboro attorney Mike Bowling served on the death penalty assessment team.

“There were more than 70 areas that we recommended to be changed or fixed, because when you have an over 60% error rate in your death penalties, then the system is broken and needs to be fixed, and you all (lawmakers) are the people to fix it,” said Bowling.

The team of Kentucky legal eagles did not make a recommendation on supporting or rejecting the death penalty, but looked at areas that need correction to ensure it’s being administered fairly.

Linda Ewald, with the University Of Louisville Brandeis School Of Law and co-chair of the Kentucky Assessment Team on the Death Penalty, said since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976 in Kentucky,  50 of 78 people who were sentenced to death had their sentences overturned on appeal because of serious constitutional errors or misconduct at the trial.

One of the recommendations from the death penalty review panel says that Kentucky should ban executions of the severely mentally ill. Representative Darryl Owens, a Louisville Democrat, has filed House Bill 145 that exempts severely mentally retarded defendants from a death sentence. It has been assigned to the Judiciary Committee, but has not yet been heard there.

Ewald said their study found that 10 of the 78 people sentenced to death were represented by defense attorneys who were later disbarred. When it comes to the public defenders, says Ewald, “the caseloads were too high and the salaries too low.”  They also found what they called a “disturbingly” high percentage of jurors who didn’t understand the sentencing instructions before handing down a death sentence.

As a result of the review by the Kentucky Death Penalty Assessment team, it was concluded that Kentucky should temporarily halt executions until those problems are corrected. Lexington lawyer Stan Lee cautioned about reciting statistics that could infer more than they mean.

“Quoting statistics (of the 60% error rate) in reports like these can give the impression to the public that 60% of the people who were executed weren’t supposed to be, which I know that’s not what this says but I also know how things can get reported sometimes.”  He went on to say that the facts indicate to him “that the system is working.”

There was some sentiment among committee members that a task force should be formed to study the panel’s recommendations during the interim.

Learn more about the issue from the Legislative Update January 25th edition.

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