On June 22, Kansas will turn 55. No it doesn’t mean Kansas can take money out of a retirement plan or get senior citizen discounts. Rather, we celebrate 55 years without an execution conducted in the name of the people of Kansas!
Kansas has long had a conflicted history regarding the death penalty. That history set a foundation for the fifty five year milestone.
A Conflicted History
Kansas had the death penalty in its laws as it began statehood. Opposition developed early on though to state killing. In 1872, when the Legislature passed a law requiring Kansas governors to execute, the governors refused to be involved with execution orders!
Abolition became law in 1907 and continued until 1935. A new death penalty law was passed that year and remained in effect til 1972 when the Furman decision voided death sentences across the United States. Kansas was then death penalty free until 1994 when the current law was passed.
A number of Kansas governors refused to be part of the killing process. Among them were Governor Edward Hoch, Governor George Docking and Governor John Carlin.
Governor Hoch was one of the early statehood governors who just plain flat refused to execute. His stance came from a belief that “capital punishment brutalizes mankind and contributes to the crime it was invented to prevent.” He signed the 1907 abolition legislation.
Governor Docking said “I just don’t like killing people”. Before he left office in 1961, he commuted two death sentences.
A reporter asked John Carlin during his campaign for governor if he would sign a death penalty bill, even though he was opposed as a legislator. Carlin indicated he would. Yet, when the legislature sent him death penalty reinstatement legislation, “the magnitude of the decision hit me. For the first time I held the power of life and death in my hands, and I knew I couldn’t sign it.” Governor Carlin went on to veto reinstatement legislation four times in 1979, 1980, 1981, and 1985. His vetoes meant that the reinstatement of the death penalty was delayed for many years.
Reinstatement, but No Executions
Kansas reinstated in 1994, yet there have been no executions under that law despite fifteen death sentences having been handed down.
The lack of executions is the result of a number of variables. First, three cases had their death sentences thrown out by the courts. When the case went back to the local level, prosecutors decided not to seek death the second time around. Instead, agreements were reached to sentence those individuals to decades long incarceration. Time gave the prosecutor a different perspective than the first time the case came around.
Kansas juries have also contributed to this fifty five year milestone. Numerous cases have gone to trial where juries have refused to hand down death in the penalty phase even in cases involving multiple victims or law enforcement officers.
Legislative success has contributed to achievement as well. In 2014, SB 257 was an effort by death penalty proponents to speed up the legal process so that executions happened more quickly. Thanks to the hard work of our legislative allies and the calls and emails from ordinary Kansans, this legislation was defeated.
Kansas defense attorneys have also contributed to the five and half decades without execution. They have been in the trenches fighting for the lives of their clients. Legal strategy has spared some clients from the risk of death.
Diverse voices have also played a role. Numerous murder victim family members, faith leaders, attorneys, exonerees, as well as political advocates from across the political spectrum have spoken out time and again against the death penalty. Whether it’s been legislative testimony, editorials, letters to the editor, public presentations——all of these have helped create the climate where more and more Kansans realize death is not the answer.
So let’s celebrate the fact that it is fifty five years since the state of Kansas executed someone in our names.