Kansas capital punishment abolitionist: ‘We aren’t good enough to kill people’

Coalition advancing religious, financial, ethical and judicial arguments for repeal

By: - November 6, 2021 4:26 pm
Kansans drawn to the idea of repealing capital punishment laws Saturday made the case for why the Kansas Legislature ought to step back from application of the ultimate punishment in favor of a sentence of life without chance of parole. (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)

Kansans drawn to the idea of repealing capital punishment laws Saturday made the case for why the Kansas Legislature ought to step back from application of the ultimate punishment in favor of a sentence of life without chance of parole. (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Buhler Mennonite Church pastor Willmar Harder says the answer to murder wasn’t state-sanctioned imposition of the death penalty.

“We aren’t good enough to kill people,” Harder said during the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty’s annual gathering Saturday.

He said implementation of the absolute certainty of death through lethal injection in Kansas couldn’t be justified when the absolute certainty of guilt wasn’t required by the state’s judicial system. Since 1973, he said, 186 people sentenced to death in the United States had been exonerated.

“What if we had killed them?” Harder said.

Religious and judicial arguments were woven with political, ethical, historical and personal issues raised during an online conference that brought together a Mennonite pastor with an Academy Award winning filmmaker, a former chairman of the Sedgwick County Republican Party, a Kansas public defender working capital cases and a woman whose sister was murdered.

Kansas had a death penalty statute when a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1972 struck down capital punishment nationwide. The Supreme Court in 1976 reinstated constitutionality of the death penalty. Kansas Gov. John Carlin vetoed four reinstatement bills from 1979 to 1985. In 1994, Gov. Joan Finney allowed a bill to become law without her signature.

In 2010, the Kansas Senate came within one vote of passing legislation that would replace the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole for the crime of aggravated murder. The politics of capital punishment continues to thwart passage of a reform bill, but Kansas hasn’t executed anyone since 1965.

 

‘System is so flawed’

Julia Spainhour, chief attorney in the state’s capital public defender office, said the law enforcement and judicial system was inadequate to carry the burden of the death penalty. State government doesn’t provide adequate funding to indigent defendants in these complex cases, she said. In addition, she said, prosecutors who secure death-penalty convictions don’t welcome attempts to exonerate people who might not be guilty of those crimes.

“Our system is so flawed that we cannot trust it to make the choice of those who live and those who die,” she said.

Dalton Glasscock, the former chairman of the Sedgwick County Republican Party, said he was raised in a conservative, evangelical household that embraced capital punishment. His view evolved as he came to accept the death penalty was inconsistent with a perspective that all life was sacred and that life covered the span of time from conception to natural death.

He said it was disappointing so many political figures were pro-life on abortion but not when it came to people accused of horrible crimes.

“As a conservative Republican,” Glasscock said, “the death penalty is incompatible with the culture of life.”

 

Belated exoneration

Kevin Willmott, the Academy Award winning film director and screenwriter from Lawrence, framed his opposition to the death penalty by recounting the execution in 1944, and the exoneration 70 years later, of 14-year-old George Stinney Jr., in South Carolina.

The Black child was accused of brutally murdering two white girls. He was questioned by police without his parents or the presence of legal counsel. The two-hour trial featured little evidence. The all-white jury convicted in 10 minutes. His attorney declined to appeal.

South Carolina officials struggled to make use of an electric chair build for adults. Leg straps were too large and the 5-foot-1, 90-pound boy’s skull didn’t reach the headpiece. He was made to sit on a Bible, Willmott said, to elevate him as if a youngster in a barber’s chair.

Willmott said reality of Stinney’s unjustified execution conflicted with the popular Perry Mason image of a judicial system that made certain bad guys went to prison and the good guys, even if initially framed, went free.

“Not so much in real life,” said Willmott, a professor of film at the University of Kansas. “Not so much.”

There is a long way to go for the United States to become the type of multi-racial democracy that prevents so many innocent people from being thrown into prison, he said. Capital punishment laws requiring hard judgments about life and death, most often applied to the poor and people without adequate legal representation, don’t advance formation of an equal and just society, he said.

 

One sister’s plea

Mary Head, a retired Kansas school teacher, was a missionary teaching English in Japan when contacted about her sister’s death May 17, 1984. Her sibling Pat had been shot twice while sleeping at her home in Norwood, Colorado. It was a shock, Head said, because the sisters had so recently spoken by telephone.

“In that call she told me that she had finally broken up with her abusive boyfriend and got her own place,” Head said. “But he was refusing to accept the breakup and insisted he would get her back.”

Law enforcement officers focused intently on the ex-boyfriend, but a judge found at a preliminary hearing there was insufficient evidence to prosecute. No one stood trial in the slaying, and the case officially went cold.

The goals of mourning a sister, family healing, community safety and holding a killer accountable were blocked, she said. Even in those moments, she said, the quest wasn’t to see a murderer die for his evil crime.

“My thoughts never did light on the possibility of Pat’s killer being executed,” Head said. “Seeking the death penalty never crossed my mind.”

Since Kansas reinstated capital punishment about 3,000 homicides have occurred in the state. A portion go unsolved and the criminal justice system should dedicate tax dollars poured into death-penalty cases to finance more work on cold cases, she said.

As it stands, Head said, millions of dollars were devoted to the tiny fraction of cases that resulted in a death sentence and were consumed by appeals.

“I can only imagine how painful the years-long appeals process is for the families with the continual reopening of the wounds,” she said. “The thought of victims’ families reliving those memories again and again throughout the appeals process is reason enough to put offenders in prison for life.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.

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