Death Penalty Report Released

Dec 7, 2011

A suspension of all executions in Kentucky was the recommendation in a report released today by the American Bar Association.  A special panel spent two years reviewing capital punishment in the Commonwealth and uncovered a number of concerns.   The 400-plus page report has been handed over to the governor and attorney general for review.

The report by the Kentucky Assessment Team covers everything from the number of death sentences overturned on appeal,  the salaries paid public defenders, the preparation of Kentucky’s juries, to the state’s treatment of mentally ill defendants.  American Bar Association President Bill Robinson, who’s a native of northern Kentucky, was on hand for the report’s release.…

“When a person’s life is at stake… the guarantees of fairness and due process…are absolutely paramount,” said Robinson.

Robinson says there’s also a recognition the Commonwealth has made improvements and it would be wrong to see the report as a blanket criticism. 

Kentucky’s review team included attorneys, former justices of the state supreme court, and law school professors.   There were no state prosecutors on the panel.   Team co-chair Linda Ewald says panel did not evaluate the morality of capital punishment.

“It was not the charge of the committee to evaluate whether the Commonwealth should retain the death penalty or not…we proceeded on the assumption that the death penalty would be retained in Kentucky and our goal was to look at ways to improve it,” added Ewald.

The extensive review found of the last 78 people sentenced to death in Kentucky, 50 had their death sentences overturned in state or federal courts.  Assessment team co-chair Mike Mannheimer says that number should alarm members of the judiciary.

“It’s troubling that there are so many reversals.. in capital cases when if you’ve practices criminal law, you know that cases are rarely reversed on appeal,” said Mannheimer.

The team also found Kentucky does not preserve the evidence used in criminal cases for as long as a defendant remain incarcerated.  If the evidence is preserved then it can be re-evaluated as new testing techniques, such as D-N-A testing, are invented.    

The report states at least ten of the 78 people sentenced to death were represented by attorneys who were subsequently disbarred.  A survey of jurors in capital cases found a high percentage failed to fully understand sentencing guidelines.  And the team believes Kentucky doesn’t have adequate protections to ensure death sentences are not carried out on mentally ill defendants.

Kentucky’s chief Justice John Minton was among those people listening in the capitol rotunda.   Minton picked up seven copies of the report for supreme court members.

“I expect that I will advise the court when we get together that this report has arrived at our doorstep…and that we need to figure a method to address what ever issues are in that report that should be something the court should address,” explained Minton.

Still, Minton says the report seems to indicate that Kentucky’s appeals process works.

The long list of recommendations include proper preservation of all biological evidence, best practices for law enforcement, and better pay and training for public defenders.

ome of the changes would require new legislation.  Co-Chair Michael Mannheimer doesn’t believe lawmakers who support the death penalty should fear these proposals.

“If it’s a question of implementing the death penalty fairly and efficiently…I don’t think there should be any political blowback.. because we’re saying ,in affect…we accept the death penalty.. we can continue to have the death penalty in the commonwealth..we just want to make sure it’s administered fairly,” said Mannheimer.

Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway issued a statement today saying he disagrees with the American Bar Association’s analysis and at first glance he doesn’t believe it warrants a suspension of the death penalty.  Conway goes on to say a suspension would disregard trial verdicts, years of judicial review, and the wishes of a victim’s surviving relatives.  Governor Beshear also issued a statement which promised to carefully review and study the American Bar Association report.