Kansas legislators mull death penalty appeal changes

TOPEKA, Kan. - Supporters of the Kansas death penalty law are pushing a measure that would shorten the appeals process for inmates through the state Supreme Court, a move borne out of frustration by some who want the state to carry out the sentences more quickly.

   The measure seeks to streamline the process and narrow the scope of the appeals and the amount of time inmates have to raise their grievances.

   Kansas has put nine men on death row since capital punishment was reinstated in 1994, but no one has completed the appeals process at the state level, putting the date of the state's next execution years in the future.

   Sen. Greg Smith testified Thursday about the bill and spoke out against a separate proposal to abolish the death penalty. He argued that the Kansas Supreme Court was at least partially to blame for the delays in carrying out executions.

   "They are judging the law rather than judging the facts. That's what's a matter with Kansas," said Smith, an Overland Park Republican and former law enforcement officer whose daughter was murdered.

   Kelsey Smith was abducted from a Johnson County shopping mall and taken to Missouri and abused by her killer before being strangled. Edwin Hall pleaded guilty to the murder to avoid the death sentence, receiving life in prison without parole.

   Over the years, the Kansas Supreme Court has ruled the death penalty unconstitutional, in whole or in part, only to see those decisions reversed on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. That happened most recently in the 2013 appeal of Scott Cheever, who was sentenced to death for the murder of Greenwood County Sheriff Matt Samuels. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that a lower court in Kansas should not have overturned Cheever's conviction and death sentence.

   One Kansas Supreme Court ruling that placed the law in legal limbo in the early 2000s meant that several of the appeals for cases from the earlier decade were placed on hold or the defendants were remanded for resentencing.

   That aside, legislators question why the process is still taking so long, pointing to the more than two dozen extensions that were granted by the Kansas Supreme Court for attorneys representing Wichita murder defendants Jonathan and Reginald Carr. The brothers were convicted of a December 2000 quadruple killing.

   Most of the language in the Senate bill mirrors existing rules of the Kansas Supreme Court regarding appeals, said Kristafer Ailsleiger, deputy solicitor general for Kansas. He said those rules "unfortunately have not necessarily been viewed as binding" and led to the delays.

   "By codifying these existing rules and putting the force of law behind them, they are more likely to be applied in practice," he wrote in testimony to senators.

   The changes proposed would also serve to keep the courts focused on potential sentencing errors and not "open-ended review" of the entire case that could lead to undue delays, Ailsleiger said.

   "The attorney general believes these changes are necessary to ensure the families of the victims of capital murders, as well as the public at large, see justice is timely delivered," he said. "At the same time, these changes adequately protect the rights of capital defendants."

   Defense attorneys argue that making the changes would increase the chances that an innocent person is wrongly executed.

   Ron Wurtz of the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty, said changing the limits of an appeal puts an increased burden on the defendant to prove innocence, including with new "clear and convincing evidence."

   He also said conversations with other attorneys suggest the bill may narrow the focus of death penalty appeals in a way that could render the law unconstitutional.
 

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