Kansas is one of 31 states that have the death penalty, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Since 1976 – the year the U.S. Supreme Court allowed capital punishment nationwide after striking it down four years earlier – 1,416 people have been executed nationwide.
In Kansas, death is a possible punishment for capital murder. Prosecutors decide whether to seek it, but its imposition must be unanimously recommended by a jury. If it isn’t, the defendant is sentenced to prison.
Every death sentence receives an automatic review by the Kansas Supreme Court.
The legal issues that have halted Kansas from carrying out an execution under its third incarnation of a capital punishment law started not long after the first capital murder case was appealed. Since then, decisions in at least three other capital murder cases have influenced or changed the way death penalty trials are handled in Kansas.
Gary Kleypas received a death sentence for the 1996 rape and murder of Pittsburg State University student Carrie Williams. His appeal was heard and decided in 2001.
The question that arose from the Kleypas case centers on the same issue that has plagued most other death penalty cases in Kansas so far: whether the equation juries used to determine whether to recommend execution violated cruel and unusual punishment protections afforded under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The Kansas Supreme Court, in reviewing the Kleypas case, ruled 4-3 that the equation was flawed because it gave an unfair advantage to prosecutors, rather than favoring the defendant. They threw out his death sentence.
Death penalty cases essentially require two trials for a defendant.
In the first, a jury decides whether the defendant is guilty of capital murder.
In the second, called the penalty phase, jurors are asked to weigh evidence for and against a death sentence. Evidence in support of death is called aggravating factors. Evidence that calls for leniency is called mitigating factors.
Jackson, the law professor, explained that in the Kleypas decision, “the big problem was over this weighing equation, because, in a tie, you get death.”
“And it wasn’t entirely clear whether or not that was constitutional.”
The court suggested the remedy would be giving juries different instructions rather than rewriting the death penalty law. It sent Kleypas’ case back to Crawford County District Court for a new sentencing proceeding.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, followed the court’s direction and changed the instructions given to juries, Jackson said.
In 2008, Kleypas was again sentenced to death. He’s now awaiting another appeal.
‘Marathon, not a sprint’
Three years after the Kleypas decision, the Kansas Supreme Court scrutinized the weighing equation again – this time in an appeal of the death penalty case of Michael Marsh.
Marsh was convicted of fatally shooting a friend’s wife and then setting a fire that also killed her toddler in 1996. It was a Sedgwick County case.
In a 4-3 decision delivered in 2004, the Kansas Supreme Court said its ruling in Kleypas had been wrong. State legislators should have rewritten the state death penalty law, it said, rather than the courts giving juries different instructions.
The death penalty in Kansas was struck down.
“You had a situation then where you know all of a sudden all of the death penalty cases were theoretically not valid,” Jackson said.
The state attorney general’s office, in response, asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.
In the meantime, appeals in other death penalty cases stopped, Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett said.
Source: The Wichita Eagle, Amy Renee Leiker, October 3, 2015
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