In 1997, Larry Osborne was 17 years old. At that age, most kids would be obsessed about their SAT scores or lining up a date for the senior prom. Mr. Osborne, on the other hand, was standing trial for his very life, accused of breaking into the Whitley County home of 82-year-old Sam Davenport and murdering him and his 76-year-old wife, Lillian.
Despite the absence of any physical evidence linking him to the crime scene, Mr. Osborne was nevertheless convicted and sentenced to death based solely on the recorded grand jury testimony of an alleged witness who drowned before the trial.
Kentucky's Supreme Court unanimously overturned the conviction, necessitating a new trial. At the conclusion of the do-over, Mr. Osborne was acquitted of all charges and released immediately. That it "only" took 6 years to go from being the youngest man to ever sit on Kentucky's death row to a free man is a testament to the skill and tenacity of Mr. Osborne's legal defense team led by the peerless Gail Robinson (R.I.P.).
To ensure that no such innocent person is ever put to death in the future, or any guilty one for that matter, will be the responsibility of another team, this one comprised of state legislators like Joe Fischer, Jason Nemes, Darryl Owens, Jeff Hoover, Gerald Neal, Julie Raque Adams, Robert Stivers, and Whitney Westerfield. Some of these lawmakers support abolishing capital punishment in Kentucky. Others chair committees that would consider such a measure or hold leadership positions that would decide if an abolition bill merits a floor vote in the House and Senate.
Kentucky is, by acclimation, a pro-life state --- perhaps the most pro-life state in the union. The accolade is well-deserved. Just last month, the General Assembly passed SB 5, a measure that prohibits the killing of unborn babies after 20 weeks of gestation, a frontal assault on Roe v. Wade that, 44 years ago, legalized abortion-on-demand in America. The bill received a lopsided 79-15 approval in the House (17-14 among House Democrats that voted, including their floor leader and whip) and 30-6 in the Senate.
Although I do not equate the innocent lives of the unborn with those of convicted killers who are at least accorded the full measure of due process of law while pre-born infants, under Roe, enjoy no such legal protection, the moral principles at stake in each discussion are the same: if a society that calls itself civilized has any legitimate claim to that status and believes sincerely in the sanctity of all human life as unique and precious in the eyes of God, it simply cannot also enforce and carry out the executions of human beings for crimes committed. Being pro-life and pro-death penalty is a contradiction in terms.
Candor requires that I inform the reader that I am a paid lobbyist for the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. But taxpayers were the only people paying me anything for opposing capital punishment from 1980-2002 when I was a state legislator and introduced bills to repeal this barbaric practice.
Opposition to the death penalty does not equate to sympathy for convicted murderers. I've never participated in a candlelight vigil or shed any tears for the criminals sitting on death row. The truly guilty are where they deserve to be, at least in theory, never to be free again. No, the vigils and the tears belong exclusively to the victims and their grief-stricken families. But does killing the killers really honor the memories of those victims? What kind of example does that teach our children - that our reaction to the most pernicious act carried out by one human being upon another (the act of taking a life) is to take that person's life? The more heinous the murderers --- think Timothy McVeigh or Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev --- the deeper our resolve should be that we must never descend to their level.
There are lots of other compelling reasons to oppose the death penalty, but those reasons pale to insignificance beside the single fundamental ideal that we cherish in this Judeo-Christian nation --- that all human life is sacred. In the fevered debate about the "life" issues: abortion, euthanasia ("assisted suicide"), and the death penalty, it's all cut from that same bolt of cloth, the "seamless garment" as the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin called it.
It will take courage for our elected women and men to pass this final measure to drive the point home, convincingly and completely, that Kentucky is indeed the most pro-life state in America. But this issue transcends the fleeting political careers of we mere mortals. As William Jennings Bryan said in his famous "Cross of Gold" speech: "The individual is but an atom; he is born, he acts, he dies, but principles are eternal."
Source: Courier-Journal, Opinion, Bob Heleringer, Feb. 7, 2017. Mr. Heleringer is a Louisville attorney who served in Kentucky's House from the 33rd District from 1980 to 2002.
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