“Someone has to step up and say when enough is enough,” said Winchester Police Detective Dennis Briscoe. Almost two decades have passed, and the man who killed Briscoe's father and uncle remains on Kentucky's death row. Ralph Baze's fate is tangled in the legal fight over the death penalty.
“They get to grow old, grey hair, die an old age. They get to see some of their grandchildren. You know, my father didn't get to do any of that,” said Briscoe.
Briscoe's father was a Powell County deputy, and his uncle, Steve Bennett, was the sheriff. Baze shot and killed them as they tried to serve him an arrest warrant in 1992.
Dennis Briscoe was 14 years old when he learned his father and uncle’s fate. “I remember I was in gym class, and someone came to P.E. and said that I needed to come to the office, principal's office,” Briscoe said about that day in 1992 when his mother was waiting to tell him the news.
“My uncle was shot in the back as he was trying to crawl away through the cruiser, away from the gunfire, and then my father fired a couple of magazines of ammunition towards [Baze], and as he's running away trying to load a third magazine is when [Baze] shoots him in the back,” Briscoe said. “And then comes over, stands over his head, and shoots him in the back of the head.”
A jury sentenced Baze to death for the murders of both officers, but for almost twenty years, he has avoided execution with one legal challenge after another.
“There is a certain amount of unfairness in the system when executions do take so long,” said Michael Mannheimer, a law professor at Northern Kentucky University who is also the co-chair of an American Bar Association team reviewing the Kentucky death penalty system.
Over the last decade, executions in the United States have steadily declined from 85 in 2000 to 46 in 2010. Sentencing someone to execution, setting the date, and then carrying it out all involve legal wrangling. Factor appeals and debate over how to execute someone and the entire process can take decades, rather than years. The process is further complicated by a shortage of one of the drugs used in lethal injections.
In 2007 shortly before Baze’s execution was put on hold after the Kentucky Supreme Court was asked to review the state’s death penalty protocol, Baze told WKYT that he acted in self defense.
“It's pretty hard to claim self-defense when you shoot him in the back of the head like that isn't it,” questioned Briscoe.
The courts have repeatedly rejected Baze's self-defense claims, but questions over Kentucky's lethal injection protocol took the case all the way to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court rejected the challenge to lethal injection and lifted a national moratorium on capital punishment.
“There has to be an accommodation between the rights of the defendant and the needs of society and the needs of the victim to have executions take place expeditiously if they're going to take place,” said Mannheimer.
“I'm all for the appeals process. I really am because if it saves just one person, it's worth it,” said Briscoe. “You got to have an appeals process, but I think you have to put limits on it. And you have to be watchful when it's abused.”
But Mannheimer believes if the ABA guidelines are followed, it could stream line the appeals process. “What we're trying to do is make an accommodation of all the interests involved,” he said.
But fairness for all is a delicate balance. Courts have held the punishment becomes cruel and unusual if it goes too far while victims' families argue the long wait is just as agonizing for them.
“I mean, yeah, I'm not going to lie. I thought about it. I thought about taking it in my own hands and shooting him right there in the courtroom,” said Briscoe who ultimately did not because faith in the system made for restraint and patience.
“I just didn't consider it would take this long. I still have trust in the system. I'm hoping that eventually it will do the right thing in this case,” said Briscoe.
The American Bar Association assessment team plans to complete its review and make recommendations by May. State officials are not obligated to enact those recommendations.