34 Kansas House members — conservative to liberal — support abolishing the death penalty

February 17, 2021 3:35 am

Wilma Loganbill’s son David was murdered in 1989 in Wichita. “Afterwards, I wanted to hurt the person who murdered my son in the same way that he hurt me. But I never wanted him dead. My son wouldn’t have wanted that,” she said in a pamphlet called “Voices of Kansas: Murder Victims’ Families Speak Out Against the Death Penalty.” (Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation)

If you were looking for a group of 34 members of the Kansas House who represented the best hope of bipartisanship — that mythical yet evasive unity some people say they want right now — you could would find it in the list of sponsors for a bill that’s most likely going nowhere this year.

It would abolish the death penalty.

Championing the legislation is Rep. Mark Schreiber, a Republican from Emporia. Among its 33 co-sponsors are 11 other Republicans:

Are 22 Democrats:

In one sense, this does not appear to be a pressing issue for Kansas. Nobody’s been executed in the state since 1965. The U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty in 40 states (including Kansas) in 1972, but the Legislature re-instated it in 1994. Ten men are now awaiting this punishment.

In another sense, though, it’s a situation — maybe the only one — where lawmakers whose political views are widely divergent have found common cause based on principle.

“Some of them are bringing strong voices against abortion and they don’t see much difference in the abortion issue and this death penalty issue,” Schreiber said of his co-sponsors. “Some see it as social justice issue like I do, where, is this the right thing to be involved with — deliberately executing people?”

Kansas Rep. Mark Schreiber, a Republican from Emporia has 34 sponsors, Republican and Democrat, for his bill to abolish the death penalty.

He did not want to excuse the “horrific crimes that these people committed,” Schreiber said. But he cited the cost of prosecuting offenders through the appeals process. He cited exonerations of people wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in other states.

“We make a mistake and there’s no redress on that,” he said.

When he arrived in the Legislature five years ago, one of the first people to pay him a visit was Donna Schneweis, the chairwoman of the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty. He read the organization’s fact sheets. Then he read Sister Helen Prejean’s “Dead Man Walking” — his reaction, he said, was “Wow” — and then he read Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.”

“There were some really powerful firsthand accounts of the criminal justice system when it deals with capital murder cases,” Schreiber said. “It was eye-opening and kind of validated why I feel that way.”

“The death penalty is increasingly out of favor with people from all across the political spectrum,” Schneweis told me. “That is why we have the diversity of support that we do on our bill.”

Her efforts go back to the late 1980s. She fought reinstatement in 1994.

“People understand things now about how the death penalty plays out that they didn’t years ago,” she said. “There’s a growing awareness that the death penalty is a public policy that needs to go because it doesn’t work, it harms the people who use it and we have ways of keeping our society safe.”

Two years ago, Schreiber introduced a similar bill with a similar number of sponsors. It went so far as to get a hearing in the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice committee, where it came within one vote of getting out of committee, he said.

This year’s bill has been assigned to the same committee, but Schreiber wasn’t optimistic it would get a hearing — he said he’d been told the committee had a long list of other priorities, including several bills suggested by the Kansas Criminal Justice Reform Commission. (There’s also a version in the Senate.)

He keeps bringing it up, he said, to keep the conversation going.

“For something as big as the death penalty that can be very personal and very emotional, to get 34 sponsors — I was really pleased with that and pleased with folks that signed onto it,” he said.

The Legislature passes most bills with broad bipartisan support (leading to the Kansas Chamber’s big lie on campaign postcards about how targeted Republicans vote with Democrats), but much of that legislation isn’t particularly controversial.

I asked whether it could serve as a model for other bipartisan efforts. He was doubtful.

“I hope it serves as a kind of a model, but I don’t know that I want to go that far,” he said. “But certainly, like a lot of things, sometimes we just have to keep talking about it and eventually we’ll get some momentum.”

But the wide-ranging political agreement suggests that, on this one at least, people have talked about it enough. It’s time, Kansas.

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C.J. Janovy
C.J. Janovy

C.J. Janovy is a veteran journalist with deep roots in the Midwest. She was the Opinion Editor for the Kansas Reflector from launch unit l June 2021. Before joining the Reflector, she was an editor and reporter at Kansas City’s NPR affiliate, KCUR. Before that, she edited the city’s alt-weekly newspaper, The Pitch, where Janovy and her writers won numerous local, regional and national awards. Her book “No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas” was among the Kansas Notable Books of 2019.