Kentucky’s Egregious Death Penalty

Published: October 24, 2012


The Kentucky Commission on Human Rights voted unanimously last week to recommend that the state abolish the death penalty. There is every reason for Kentucky to take the advice and become the 18th state to prohibit capital punishment.

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The death penalty in Kentucky is colossally unfair, costly and riddled with constitutional error. From 1976 through last year, of the 78 people sentenced to death in the state, 50 had their sentences overturned on appeal, with 15 of those for prosecutorial mistakes or misconduct.

In December, a report conducted by the American Bar Association based on a two-year review by a team of lawyers, professors and former members of the State Supreme Court found enormous problems with the state’s capital system.

Kentucky’s laws and procedures, the report said, failed to “protect the innocent, convict the guilty and ensure the fair and efficient enforcement of criminal law in death penalty cases.”

For instance, among the state’s 57 prosecutors’ offices, some “will charge every death-eligible case as a capital case” while most others do not. This means that the pursuit of the death penalty in Kentucky is largely arbitrary and capricious, determined by which office happens to be prosecuting the case.

Judges presiding over capital trials often give inadequate jury instructions so that almost half of the jurors interviewed in a long-term study did not understand that they could consider mitigating evidence at sentencing, which could allow them to avoid imposing the death penalty. The system does not protect the rights of people with severe mental illnesses who, the United States Supreme Court has said, cannot be sentenced to death. And there are no standards governing the qualifications for lawyers who handle capital cases, with dreadful consequences: 10 of the 78 people sentenced to death had lawyers who were later disbarred.

In 2010, a state court blocked Kentucky from executing anyone because of “substantial legal questions regarding the validity” of its lethal injection protocol. That ruling alone should be the end of capital punishment.

Kentucky can ensure that heinous criminals are no longer threats to society by sentencing them to life without parole. It is time for the state to end the death penalty.

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