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Kentucky Lawmakers Mull Changes To Death Penalty

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Death penalty supporters and opponents both say that Kentucky’s capital punishment system is too expensive, lengthy and in need of reform.

Kentucky has had a moratorium on the death penalty since 2010, but state prosecutors still pursue capital punishment in more than 50 cases every year.

During a legislative hearing on Friday, Louisville Republican Rep. Jason Nemes said that the death penalty needs to be sought only in the most extreme circumstances.

“We have human frailties and pressures: we elect our prosecutors, we elect our judges. That provides pressure to people,” Nemes said.

“And sometimes that’s not a good thing, especially when we’re dealing with the mechanics of death.”

There are 32 men and one woman on death row in Kentucky right now — nine of the inmates were sentenced more than 30 years ago but have pursued lengthy appeals.

And all of those court costs add up. According to the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy, death penalty prosecution, defense and court proceedings add up to about $10 million each year.

Damon Preston, Kentucky’s chief public advocate, says that pursuing the death penalty is inefficient because of how complicated the cases are and how rarely juries come back recommending the death penalty.

“They do have a mentality that this is for the worst of the worst, and Kentucky juries by and large are not returning death penalty verdicts,” Preston said.

“When a person’s life is on the line, courts look at that very carefully and that’s why we have convictions reversed even if the person is otherwise guilty, they’re entitled to a fair process.”

Kentucky has put three people to death since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976.

The state’s last execution was in 2008, when Marco Allen Chapman was put to death by lethal injection for stabbing and raping a woman and killing her two children in Gallatin County in 2002.

Rep. John Blanton, a Republican from Salyersville, said that the state needs to find a way to speed up the appellate process to provide victims with closure.

“The problem is not the death sentence, the problem is the length of time we allow these people to look for everything under the sun, to nitpick and dot every “I” and cross every “t” to find something that allows them to get out of the death sentence for something that they did,” Blanton said.

Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd issued an injunction on Kentucky’s death penalty in 2010 over concerns about whether lethal injection causes pain or suffering that would violate the state constitution.

Last month, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for the state to use an IQ test to determine if death row inmates are mentally competent, saying courts have to assess whether defendants are able to learn basic skills or adjust their behavior in order to sentenced them to death.

About two-thirds of Kentuckians support capital punishment, according to a Bluegrass Poll from 2013.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives. He's covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin. He has a bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago and a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas. He grew up in Lexington.

Email Ryland at
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