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Death penalty focus of Paducah hearing

BY LAUREN P. DUNCANlduncan@paducahsun.com

The question of whether Kentucky should enforce the death penalty will be debated at a meeting Friday in Paducah.

The General Assembly's Interim Committee on Judiciary will meet at Western Kentucky Community and Technical College. The meeting, which is open to the public, will include testimony from individuals dealing with the legislative, enforcement and victim sides of the death penalty.

According to Todd Henson, public information officer with the Kentucky Department of Corrections, 33 inmates in Kentucky are currently on death row. The lone female inmate is housed at the Kentucky Correctional Institute for Women in Pewee Valley, and the 32 male inmates are housed at a separate facility for death row inmates at the Kentucky State Penitentiary at Eddyville. All 33 inmates have been convicted of murder.

Executions in Kentucky have been halted since 2010, when Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd issued an injunction against them over the question of whether the state's lethal injection protocol is constitutional.

The debate on the death penalty has led to decisions in 18 states to abolish the death sentence. Recently, the practice of execution has been scrutinized as botched executions have occurred, most recently last Wednesday in Arizona where an inmate was pronounced dead one hour and 57 minutes after he was injected.

Friday's hearing in Paducah will not center around religious or philosophical arguments over the death penalty, but whether it judicially should be permitted, according to the Rev. Patrick Delahanty, chairman of the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (KCADP).

Delahanty has been working to abolish the death penalty in Kentucky since the 1970s. Since then, he said he's seen a growing trend of individuals who have been wrongfully convicted, while there's also been a decrease in individuals given death sentences.

"That doesn't mean there hasn't been some horrendous murders since then ... but juries have been refusing to give them the death penalty," he said.

KCADP advocates for life sentences without parole as opposed to the death penalty.

"We risk executing the innocent by having the death penalty in place," he said.

A 2011 report by the American Bar Association states that it was the association's assessment team's "unanimous view that, as long as Kentucky imposes the death penalty, it must be reserved for the worst offenders and offenses, ensure heightened due process and minimize risk of executing the innocent."

The study then cited alleged flaws in Kentucky's judicial system that do not guard against wrongful convictions, such as the ability to destroy evidence after an inmate has been incarcerated and the lack of uniform policies across the state regarding eyewitness identifications and interrogations.

Delahanty said the likelihood of a wrongful conviction isn't widely understood by the public.

"We're trying to educate people," Delahanty said. "They're not aware of the flaws; they think our system works."

Rep. Gerald Watkins, D-Paducah, who supports the death penalty, is on the interim judiciary committee that will be hearing testimony Friday. When Watkins was 19 years old in Paducah, one of his neighbors brutally murdered three other neighbors. That experience is one reason he supports the death penalty.

"I'd say I'm a very strong supporter of the death penalty," he said. "I don't have a problem with selecting any number of execution methods."

He would like to see some changes judicially, though, such as an expansion of DNA testing to support convictions. Watkins said the substitute of life without parole isn't a guarantee that convicted individuals will be in prison for life.

Watkins said he's made some 60 visits to the Eddyville prison where death row inmates are housed.

"I wouldn't want to get my mail delivered there, but I would say it's not that bad of an existence," he said.  "To me, when someone commits that heinous of a crime, they don't deserve the life in prison."

Watkins said he expects to hear a lot of interesting commentary at the hearing. While the committee will not be taking any action, he said its co-chairman, Rep. John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, will likely only move forward with looking at the death penalty if there is a lot of support against it.

"I think that (Tilley) is holding the hearing to see what kind of support or lack of support there is for continuing the death penalty, or if we do decide to continue it, do we want to find a different kind of mode to carry out the process? It's getting a lot of attention nationally," Watkins said.

Friday's hearing is set to include testimony from an addiction recovery program representative; Sen. Gerald Neal and Rep. David Floyd; an update on execution status and cost from Secretary J. Michael Brown of the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet; and faith-based perspective on capital punishment from the Rev. Dr. Marian Taylor of the Kentucky Council of Churches and Dr. Adam Greenway, dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Ministry.

Also speaking will be Delahanty and Ben Griffith of KCADP on crime victim perspectives, and Katherine Nichols of the Kentuckiana Voice for Crime Victims; legal perspective from Ed Monahan, Ernie Lewis and Hon. G. L. Ovey; and discussion about executions and institutional stress from Dr. Allen Ault, dean of criminal justice studies at Eastern Kentucky University who formerly was the warden of a Georgia maximum security prison that enforced executions.

The hearing will begin at 10 a.m. Friday at the WKCTC Emergency Technology Center.

Contact Lauren Duncan, Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8692 or follow @laurenpduncan on Twitter.

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