a key figure
Associated Press Writer
TOPEKA (AP) — An attempt to abolish Kansas’ death penalty is back on track, giving capital punishment opponents another, unexpected chance to argue that it’s too expensive when the state faces budget problems.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 6-5 on Thursday to forward the bill to the chamber. That decision came only a day after the committee voted to have the bill studied further this summer, which would have ended this year’s debate.
Death penalty opponents have made the costs of capital punishment their main argument this year because of the state’s recession-related financial problems. Opponents claim there wouldn’t be any real savings in repealing it.
Kansas is among 10 states with legislation to repeal the death penalty to save money, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. New Mexico and Montana have made the most progress, with one legislative chamber in each state approving the repeal.
“The economy is still in crisis, so it is certainly a relevant issue for all states,” said Richard Dieter, the center’s executive director.
A 2003 state audit showed that costs in death penalty cases averaged $1.2 million, compared with $740,000 for other murder cases. But Attorney General Steve Six has called the analysis flawed.
Megan Heyka DiGiovanni, of Topeka, said the events surrounding the bill left her “in disbelief.” Her brother, Brad Heyka, was among four people kidnapped and shot execution style on a soccer field in 2000 by brothers Jonathan and Reginald Carr, on death row since 2002. A fifth person survived.
“It’s not a matter of costs,” she said. “It still goes back to what it was, a moral issue. To say all death penalty cases cost more isn’t a fact.”
The bill calls for an end to death sentences after July 1. But it would allow for inmates who already had been sentenced to be put to death, including the Carr brothers and eight other people already on Kansas’ death row. The current death penalty law was enacted in 1994, but nobody has been executed under it.
The key figure in the committee’s reversal was Sen. Dwayne Umbarger, a Thayer Republican.
On Wednesday, he voted against advancing the bill and joined other committee members in recommending it be studied further. On Thursday, he said he had changed his mind and asked for another vote.
He said he had hesitated to vote to advance the bill Wednesday because he hadn’t had time to read an e-mail sent Tuesday afternoon from Sedgwick County District Attorney Nola Foulston voicing concerns about the measure. After reading the e-mail, he found it contained no information to justify holding up the measure.
“This is not a new issue. The main argument is whether this will save money or not save money,” he said. “It’s time to get this to the Senate floor and move on.”
The committee reversed itself even though Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, one of its members, opposed the bill. He said the change was unfair to members of murder victims’ families who left Wednesday’s meeting believing the debate for the year was over.
“This is exactly how we shouldn’t handle the issue. This isn’t a tax bill where we change course in short order,” said Schmidt, an Independence Republican. “We made a decision and we should stick to it.”
But Dieter called the committee vote appropriate because the issue needs to debated by the Legislature.
“Otherwise, the Legislature would be locking Kansas into years of death penalty expenses with little prospect to show anything for it,” he said.
Sen. Terry Bruce, a Hutchinson Republican, said the argument about cost savings is speculative.
“It’s the facts of the case that drives the costs, not the penalty,” he said.
And Brad Heyka’s girlfriend, Amy Scott, of Overland Park, suggested that the bill would actually increase the state’s costs.
“The 10 individuals can petition to be removed from death row and that could be a snowball effect,” she said.
Not all family members of murder victims oppose the bill. Bill Lucero, of Topeka, whose father was murdered in New Mexico in 1972, is a longtime capital punishment opponent who leads a support group for victims’ families.
He described his opposition to the death penalty as pragmatic, saying it doesn’t help victims’ families. He said the passion for capital punishment from some family members often wanes as they heal.
“There is no coalition — and never will be — for the retention of the death penalty,” he said.