TOPEKA — Upon learning that her mother’s killer was given the death sentence, Celeste Dixon of Larne said she wasn’t satisfied and comfortable with the outcome.
She attended the 1986 trial every day and even though she was still angry, she started to see the offender as a human being, she said. Dixon said she realized that she was actively promoting and even looking forward to another person’s death.
“I didn’t like the way that felt,” Dixon said. “I also didn’t like the fact that it essentially made me hang onto my anger until the execution. None of this was going to bring my mother back.”
Kansas is one of 29 states that authorizes capital punishment — with 10 people on death row awaiting lethal injection, the only permitted method of execution. Some inmates have been there since 2002, according to Rep. Mark Schreiber (R-Lyon), the main sponsor of House Bill 2282. The House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee met Feb. 19 to hear the bill, which would abolish the death penalty if enacted.
The last time Kansas executed an inmate was in 1965, when four executions by hanging took place. The deaths included Perry Edward Smith and Richard Eugene Hickock for the notorious Clutter family murders as recounted in Truman Capote’s novel, In Cold Blood. Kansas has not executed anyone since then.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Kansas had abolished and reinstated the death penalty three times –– the most recent installation taking place in 1994. In 2010, the Kansas Senate was short one vote to end capital punishment.
Now the idea has been brought up once again.
In her briefing, Assistant Revisor of Statutes Natalie Scott said the three major components of House Bill 2282.
- No person shall be sentenced to death for a crime on or after July 1, 2019, but anyone that sentenced by then may be put to death.
- The bill would repeal the capital murder statute and instead, create the crime of aggravated murder which is an off-grid person felony.
- Offenders convicted of aggravated murder will be sentenced to life in prison without parole. The rest of the sections are technical amendments.
Numerous testimonies in support of House Bill 2282
Schreiber said he believes Kansas should join the other 20 states in abolishing the death penalty. Currently, capital punishment is legal in 29 states and the District of Columbia. He also said he eventually became opposed to the death penalty — he said a young man he knew growing up was put to death in another state.
“The belief that all life has value became a milestone for me,” Schreiber said. “Whether those lives were like mine, or were those shunned by visible and invisible disabilities. We should respect all life, even of those who commit atrocities.”
In her Feb. 19 testimony before the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee, Dixon shared the personal story of her mother’s death in 1986. Michael Richard raped and murdered Dixon’s mother during a home burglary and was eventually sentenced to execution in Texas, according to Dixon. While Dixon said she and her family felt gratified at the time, she became uneasy afterwards. She felt like the case prolonged the anger and pain. Richard was executed in 2007.
“Grieving family members need understanding and a chance to grieve, and I believe the death penalty complicates that,” Dixon said.
Another supporter, Rep. Bill Sutton (R-Johnson), said the death penalty is costly and it’s “ridiculous” that it hasn’t been carried out in Kansas in 54 years.
Furthermore, Sutton said he opposes capital punishment because “the libertarian in [him] abhors the very notion of giving the power of life and death to the state … it will be abused.”
In his testimony of support, former Judge of the District Court and former Rep. Steven Becker (R-Reno) said that “the criminal justice system is imperfect because humankind is imperfect” and that wrongful convictions are bound to occur. In a criminal case, the burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt but it is not absolute certainty, Becker said.
“How can we impose the absolute certainty of death when we do not require the absolutely certainty of guilt?” Becker said.
In addition to spoken testimonies, there were numerous written ones that echoed similar thoughts in support of the bill. Proponent testimonies included relatives of homicide victims, religious organizations, the Libertarian Party of Kansas, the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty, the Kansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the Kansas Federation of College Republicans.
Few opponents against House Bill 2282
There were three testimonies in opposition to the bill, two of which were written testimonies by Attorney General Derek Schmidt and Ed Klumpp, legislative liaison of the Kansas Association of Chiefs of Police, Kansas Sheriffs Association and Kansas Peace Officers Association.
Schmidt said the Kansas capital punishment law has been tested before the nation’s highest court and has been upheld in each case. He also expressed concern that the bill will require more litigation and uncertainty regarding death sentences before July 1 because of the bill’s prospective nature.
“Our law is sound, and in my view, the death penalty is appropriate for justice in some cases,” Schmidt wrote.
Klumpp shared similar thoughts. In his written opposition statement, he said he believes capital punishment should be used sparingly, and that it seems to be working appropriately. He said that without the death penalty, there would be no incentive for a person not to commit murder.
“There will always be those in society that are vicious persons without conscience who are willing to take another person’s life in a manner that is so shocking it justifies a penalty more harsh than life in prison,” he wrote.
The only spoken opposition testimony was given by Greg Smith, special deputy for government affairs at the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office. Smith gave many arguments against the house bill and also shared a personal anecdote about his daughter Kelsey, who he said was kidnapped, raped, sodomized, and killed 12 years ago.
The murderer pleaded guilty to kidnapping, rape, sodomy and murder. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in Kansas. Smith said the offender confessed to ensure that he wouldn’t face the death penalty elsewhere since he took Kelsey across state lines.
“The death penalty is a tool that can be used to bring cases to a successful conclusion,” Smith said. “Kelsey’s killer was convicted and in prison within 19 months of murdering her. That would not have been the case had the threat of a death penalty sentence not existed.”
Schreiber, a supporter of the bill, said the fulfillment of the death penalty is slow and take decades due to appeals. It would drag the process on for everyone involved.
“The cost and continued investigations and interviews in these cases have no bounds,” Schreiber said. “Is this justice or just replaying a tragedy over and over?”
Opposition agreed that the death penalty creates difficulties for the victims’ families, though in a different regard because the State keeps revisiting the death penalty controversy.
“Every time the Legislature decides to bring this issue up, you force every homicide survivor to relive their worst,” said Smith. “The pain, the grief, the shock, and the horror all comes back as fresh as the day our loved one was murdered.”
Possible expenditures and savings for House Bill 2282
According to the bill’s fiscal note, enactment of the bill would have a financial impact on numerous organizations. The Office of Judicial Administration stated existing capital punishment cases before July 1, 2019 will still be worked out in courts. The Office also stated that aggravated murder cases would be quicker than death penalty cases. However, a fiscal impact for the Judicial Branch could not be estimated.
The State Board of Indigents’ Defense Services reported about $765,000 would be saved from the State General Fund in the fiscal year 2020. In contrast, the Office of the Attorney General estimated the bill would add costs of about $375,000 over the next two fiscal years from the State General Fund due to the possibility of offenders convicted before July 1 taking legal action.
Enactment of the bill would not affect prison admissions or beds, according to the Kansas Sentencing Commission. This is because Kansas does have not a separate holding facility for death-row inmates. The Kansas Department of Corrections stated there would be a cost avoidance for drugs that are used for lethal injection executions, but could not give estimates.
In addition, the current execution chamber is at the Lansing Correctional Facility and the new facility will open in January 2020. Since the bill is prospective, the Corrections Department reported three possible options: keep the chamber at Lansing, restore the current space at the El Dorado Correctional Facility for approximately $125,000 or build a new structure in El Dorado for about $493,000.
There is no further discussion scheduled for HB 2282 as of Feb. 26.
Angel Tran is a University of Kansas senior from Wichita majoring in journalism.