Lawmakers weighing execution halt, task force

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Executions in Kentucky could be halted for
a year or more if lawmakers form a task force to study how the
system works and correct problems with how death penalty cases are
handled, legislators said Wednesday.

Members of the House Judiciary Committee said the proposal will
likely be dealt with during the current legislative session, but
the details of who would be on the task force and how long
executions would stop remain unresolved. The task force idea,
though, drew the backing of both death penalty supporters and
opponents who heard testimony about how 64 percent of death
sentences in Kentucky since 1976 have been overturned.

"This is too ... serious to have this many errors in it," Rep.
Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, a death penalty supporter and committee
member, told The Associated Press. "You don't take people's lives
unless you know what you're doing."

The push for a task force came after members of an American Bar
Association team presented lawmakers with a summary of a two-year
study of Kentucky's capital punishment system. The study found that
state or federal courts overturned the sentences or convictions of
50 of the 78 people sent to death row since the penalty was
reinstated in Kentucky in 1976. The ABA committee initially
returned its report in December and faulted how the state handles
the severely mentally ill, the preservation of evidence and a lack
of safeguards against executing the innocent.

Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, D-Louisville, pitched the idea of a task
force during the committee meeting and said lawmakers can tackle
one issue this session by passing a bill prohibiting the state from
executing anyone found to be severely mentally ill.

"In order to be sure you do it right," Marzian said of executions, "you should look at it from all the angles."

Mike Bowling, a former state representative from Middlesboro who
sponsored Kentucky's lethal injection bill in 1998, said ABA team
members backed the idea of a task force and a halt to executions
while lawmakers study the issue and consider possible corrections.
Bowling said any suspension would likely last about a year.

Gov. Steve Beshear didn't respond directly to the possibility of
a task force, but noted that the state is still under a judge's
order stopping all executions.

"In the meantime, we will continue to carefully review and
study the 400-plus page report provided by the ABA assessment
team," Beshear said in a statement.

Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd in 2009 stopped all
executions in Kentucky, saying the state didn't have an adequate
method of ensuring the mental competency of an inmate once an
execution date is set. Shepherd's final ruling in the case is
pending. Kentucky has executed three people since 1976, the last in
2008.

In recent years, the Ohio Supreme Court created a task force to
study execution in that state, while the Pennsylvania State Senate
in December pushed for a similar panel.

Michael Mannheimer, a law professor at Northern Kentucky
University and member of the ABA panel, told lawmakers that the
system can't be made perfect, but the flaws in Kentucky's system
can be corrected to minimize the chance of an innocent or mentally
ill person being executed. While perfecting the system isn't
realistic, former Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Martin Johnstone
said, correcting an errant death sentence isn't possible.

"Everybody's heard the saying that death is different,"
Johnstone said. "Well, death is different."


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