Monday, March 12, 2001

Capital punishment foes count small steps

Lawmakers acknowledge process will be slow

By Mark R. Chellgren
The Associated Press

        FRANKFORT — Heading into the 2001 General Assembly session, opponents of capital punishment were optimistic.

        Bills were introduced to repeal the death penalty altogether, impose a five-year moratorium on executions and ban executions of juveniles and the mentally retarded.

        As the session ends, nothing has been done with any of the bills. Yet death penalty opponents say they are even more hopeful of about making progress, however slight.

        “This is something that has to be done in steps,” said Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville.

        Mr. Burch said a small victory this session was that Rep. Gross Clay Lindsay, D-Henderson, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, agreed death penalty opponents will get a hearing during the 2002 session.

        But Rep. Bob Heleringer, R-Louisville, said a legislative hearing is little more than a feel-good exercise. Until votes are actually taken, Mr. Heleringer said it is mere rhetoric.

        Mr. Burch was among the legislators who voted to reinstate Kentucky's death penalty in the 1970s. Since then, he has had a change of heart and thinks he is not alone among legislators.

        Mr. Heleringer is a Catholic who agrees with his faith that taking life under any circumstances is wrong.

        Yet they are among a small minority in the Legislature that has consistently voted in favor of the death penalty and expanding its application.

        “It's all incremental,” said the Rev. Patrick Delahanty, a Roman Catholic priest who is the prime organizer behind the Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, which counts 40 groups among its members, many of them faith-based.

        For decades, the debate over capital punishment was academic. Eugene Gall was sentenced to die in 1978 for the abduction, rape and murder of a 12-year-old Cincinnati girl whose body was found in Boone County, making him the first person sentenced to die when capital punishment was reinstated. Dozens of others were sentenced to death.

        But until July 1, 1997, when Harold McQueen Jr., 44, was put to death in the electric chair for killing clerk Rebecca O'Hearn, 22, in a 1980 Richmond robbery, the death penalty was theoretical in Kentucky.

        Eddie Lee Harper, convicted of shooting his adoptive parents to death in Louisville in 1982, was executed May 25, 1999. He had waived further appeals.

        Mr. Gall, however, has since won a federal court ruling that he was insane at the time of the crime and cannot be put to death.

        The Corrections Department lists 40 inmates on death row, including Mr. Gall. But at least two others are also in something of a legal limbo, with their sentences overturned by appeals courts or new trials pending.

        Mr. Heleringer said most current legislators have never confronted the reality of the death penalty as public policy with a vote up or down.

        Mr. Heleringer said he wants a full-fledged debate for legislators to consider the moral issue, the philosophy of capital punishment.

        But death penalty supporters were also active during the 2001 session. Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, sponsored legislation to have capital prosecutions handled by a special detachment from the attorney general's office. Mr. Yonts said the Department of Public Advocacy has a squad of lawyers who specialize in defending death penalty cases and commonwealth's attorneys need to be able to call on similar expertise.


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