Kansas death penalty appeals changes unresolved
Kansas legislators are expected this week to try again to pass a measure that would shorten the time allowed for condemned inmates to appeal their convictions before the state Supreme Court.
The measure is one of several lingering issues remaining for legislators to resolve when they return Wednesday to the Statehouse to resume their session. The bill is in a compromise agreement that also would make certain law enforcement documents related to arrests and search warrants available to the public.
The death penalty changes would limit the amount of time attorneys have to file briefs with the Kansas Supreme Court in direct appeals by inmates and appeals on issues related to the convictions.
Supporters, including Senate Vice President Jeff King, believe death penalty appeals take too long under the current structure when attorneys are granted repeated time extensions to prepare their case. The bill has been endorsed by Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt.
"There are no itchy trigger fingers involved at all," said King, a Republican from Independence. "If this bill becomes law, the average disposition time looks to be at least 11 years. We are still talking about a process of over a decade of consideration of those who are sentenced to death after their initial trial."
Critics of the bill, including the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty, have argued that the changes increase the likelihood that an innocent defendant would be executed if the process was shortened. The coalition has testified during this legislative session that because the state's capital punishment statutes have been struck down in the past, lawmakers should err on the side of caution in preserving appeals rights.
Five death penalty convictions since 1994 have been reversed on appeal by the Kansas Supreme Court. All death sentences are automatically appealed to the seven-member court. Kansas reinstated the death penalty in 1994 but has not carried out any executions.
House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee Chairman John Rubin said negotiators worked to reinstate judicial discretion in death penalty cases to give the court the ability to work within the time constraints while still keeping appeals on track.
"We do not want to do anything that pre-emptively short-circuits any cause for appeal for anybody facing the death penalty in Kansas," said Rubin, a Shawnee Republic. "It is a very serious matter. Nothing is more serious.
"We're talking about taking an accused person's life."
Rubin said the provisions in the compromise regarding law enforcement documents attempted to address concerns from county prosecutors and conservative legislators about compromising ongoing investigations.
The measure will allow public access to documents related to arrests and searches, but would make them available only by request. Law enforcement and prosecutors would have the ability to redact certain information before it is released, or seek to keep a document closed in limited circumstances.
"It is all about accountability and transparency," Rubin said. "It seems to me that if it applies to public agencies it should also apply to law enforcement."
The Kansas Press Association has lobbied for the changes for years and worked with prosecutors to develop the compromise.