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DEATH PENALTY

Topeka Capital-Journal, TheMar 17, 2003   by Chris Grenz Capital-Journal

Supporters thankful punishment still intact

NICK KRUG/The Capital-Journal

Although his father, Rubel Joseph Lucero, was murdered in 1972, Topekan Bill Lucero continues to be an outspoken critic of the death penalty. Lucero leads the national Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation organization.

Capital

questions

Death penalty opponents were hoping that the Kansas Legislature this session would impose a two-year moratorium on the death penalty and form a commission to consider:

- Whether the race of the victim or defendant plays a role in death penalty cases

- Whether there are disparities across the state in the way capital murder cases are handled

- What the total costs are to the state and local governments for capital murder cases

- Whether changes are needed in the law to ensure that no innocent person is sentenced to death

Online

Listen to the governor and others discuss the death penalty and find coverage of the state's highest punishment.

www.cjonline.com

By Chris Grenz

The Capital-Journal

Death penalty opponents began this legislative session optimistic that they would see changes to Kansas' death penalty laws --- and perhaps a moratorium.

After all, just before the session began, Illinois Gov. George Ryan focused international attention on the issue when he called the death penalty process "arbitrary and capricious, and therefore immoral" and commuted the sentences of 167 condemned inmates before leaving office in January.

In Kansas, lawmakers who were grappling with a major budget shortfall had to find $1.35 million in additional dollars for the cash-strapped state-funded agency that handles death penalty defense for the poor. The state will spend more than $2.7 million on capital defense this budget year, in large part because of two high-profile, expensive cases in Wichita and Kansas City, Kan.

Yet, more than half-way through the session, the issue has stalled.

"We had hoped that we could get farther than we've gotten," said Sister Donna Schneweis, a lobbyist for Amnesty International and the state coordinator for the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

Capital punishment opponents like Schneweis were supporting a bill that would have established a two-year moratorium on executions and capital charges. The bill also would have established a commission to study questions about Kansas' law ranging from race and geographic disparities to its cost.

"That particular bill is dead for this session," said Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood, who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where the bill was routed.

Vratil said his committee ran out of time to consider the issue. The bill will carry over to next session. However, while Vratil said it may merit some consideration, he isn't sure it will receive any.

"I don't sense widespread support in Kansas for a death sentence moratorium," he said. "I know there are some people who are very concerned about it and who are supportive of that. But I think they're in the minority."

Seven men have been sentenced to death --- though no one has been executed --- since the death penalty was re-established in Kansas in 1994. Beyond the moral issues, Schneweis said, the moratorium also would have allowed lawmakers to consider the legal ramifications of a 2001 Kansas Supreme Court ruling, which threw out the sentences of Gary Kleypas, who was the first person sentenced to die by lethal injection under Kansas' reinstated law, as well as three others sentenced to die under the same law. Schneweis said the state's high court raised more questions than it answered.

"We're pouring money into a process that we don't even know if the law is going to hold up. We look at that and we say, 'Why are we doing this?' " she said. "I don't think the death penalty can be the sacred cow. It's going to have to be looked at."

But some are relieved that lawmakers likely won't place a moratorium on capital punishment this year.

"What is there to study?" asked Peggy Schmidt, of Leawood. "I think we've already studied it enough."

Peggy Schmidt's daughter, Stephanie, was murdered one year to the day before Kansas reinstated capital punishment. Stephanie was a 19- year-old student at Pittsburg State University when she accepted a ride home with Donald Gideon, a former co-worker. What Stephanie didn't know was that Gideon was on parole after serving 10 years for raping and sodomizing a woman in 1982. Gideon pleaded guilty to first- degree murder, rape, kidnapping and sodomy and was sentenced to nearly 100 years in the Schmidt case.

Peggy Schmidt and her husband, Gene Schmidt, successfully pushed for Kansas' sexual predator law and the state's sex offender registration program, which tracks convicted sex offenders.

Although Peggy Schmidt understands that some are opposed to capital punishment and have concerns about executing an innocent person, she believes the death penalty is a deterrent. And for some truly terrible crimes, "when you know there's no doubt," she said, "I don't think they deserve to live."

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