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Efforts to repeal Kansas death penalty may be stymied by U.S. Supreme Court's ruling

The Senate Chambers in the Kansas Statehouse
The Senate Chambers in the Kansas Statehouse
Leading up to the start of the 2016 legislative session, Kansas death penalty opponents thought they had a good chance of passing a bill this year to repeal the law.

In fact, a bill was formally introduced Friday in the House, with 17 cosponsors from both sides of the aisle, including religious conservative Republicans as well as liberal and centrist Democrats.

It would prohibit death sentences for any crimes committed after Juy 1, and it would create a new crime of "aggravated murder" punishable by life in prison without the possibility of parole.

But after the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling this week that put one of the most infamous mass murders in Kansas history back in the spotlight, some lawmakers say those chances may have dimmed.

"Up until (Wednesday), we had enough votes that we could have passed it in the House," said Rep. John Bradford, R-Lansing, one of the conservative cosponsors. "Right now, after that decision, I think it's going to be questionable."

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a Kansas Supreme Court ruling and upheld the death sentences of three convicted murderers in Kansas, including Jonathan and Reginald Carr, the two brothers who who killed four people and attempted to kill a fifth during a crime spree in Wichita in December 2000.

In the same opinion, the court also reversed the Kansas court in another death penalty case, that of Sidney Gleason, who was convicted of the 2004 murder of a Great Bend woman and her boyfriend, because the decision in that case was based on the court's ruling in the Carr brothers case.

Those were the 2nd and 3rd cases in which the U.S. high court reversed the Kansas court on death penalty cases. In 2013, the U.S. court also upheld the death sentence of Scott Cheever, who shot and killed Greenwood County Sheriff Matt Samuels in 2005.

Kansas reinstated the death penalty in 1994, and since then several people have been sentenced to death. But so far, none have been executed because the Kansas Supreme Court had consistently overturned or vacated their sentences, usually on technical procedural grounds.

In 2014, in fact, the Kansas court vacated the Carr brothers' sentences, thrusting the court itself into the middle of election-year politics. 2 of the court's justices, Eric Rosen and Lee Johnson, were up for retention that year, and both of them won, but by much narrower margins than usual.

Now, with that infamous massacre back in the spotlight, some supporters of repeal say it will be hard to vote for it without appearing like they're letting the Carr brothers off the hook, even though the repeal bill, as it's currently drafted, would not apply retroactively to them.

"I'm sure some would perceive that," said Rep. John Barker, R-Salina, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, where the bill could be referred. "But I look at it from a different perspective. You have your personal convictions, whether you're pro-life or pro-choice, whether you're for the death penalty or against the death penalty. Normally (a court ruling) doesn't change your personal convictions. It may add pressure that they don't want to go forward this year, though."

Rep. Boog Highberger, D-Lawrence, another cosponsor of the bill, said he is also hopeful that the Carr brothers decision won't affect how lawmakers vote on the issue.

"The bill is not retroactive, so any existing death sentences could still be carried out," he said.

Highberger also said the movement to abolish the death penalty has been gaining momentum among conservatives.

"The conservative argument, as I understand it is, one, the death penalty is an inefficient government program," he said. "We've spent millions of dollars on it and we haven't executed anyone since 1965."

"Also," he said, "I think people are finally realizing it might be inconsistent with conservative beliefs about small government and limited government. If you only believe in limited government, do you want government having the power to kill people?"

But Sen. Jeff King, R-Independence, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and is a supporter of the death penalty, said he doesn't buy the argument that the law is ineffective because it hasn't been used yet.

"The three decisions of the Kansas Supreme Court that have prevented the death penalty have all been overturned by the United States Supreme Court," he said. "The misapplication of the federal Constitution by the Kansas Supreme Court cannot be used as a justification for repealing the law."

On Monday, House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, is expected to refer the death penalty bill to a committee.

Barker said it will be up to Merrick and the House GOP leadership team to decide whether the bill will get a hearing, and whether it will ever be voted on by the full House.

Source: Shawnee Dispatch, January 25, 2016

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