Saturday, October 26, 2002

Poll: Most in Ky. oppose execution for juvenile criminals

The Associated Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - A University of Kentucky poll shows a majority of Kentuckians are strongly or somewhat in favor of doing away with the death penalty as a possible sentence for people who commit murder when they are juveniles.

Kentucky law allows the execution of people who commit aggravated murder as 16- or 17-year-olds, but death penalty opponents plan to offer legislation that would allow the death penalty only for those 18 or older. The poll by UK's Survey Research Center asked people if they support that legislation.

In all, 63 percent said they strongly favor or somewhat favor the legislation, and 32 percent somewhat oppose or strongly oppose it.

Denis Fleming, Gov. Paul Patton's general counsel, said Thursday that the poll results would not affect the governor's decision on a request to spare the life of Kevin Stanford, who is awaiting execution for a 1981 Jefferson County rape and murder that he committed when he was 17. Mr. Fleming said Mr. Patton agrees with the poll's respondents.

"Based on the philosophical concerns he has about the application of the death penalty for juveniles, the poll reflects a concern" Mr. Patton already has expressed, Mr. Fleming said.

The UK poll response followed national trends that show little support for executing people who killed when they were juveniles.

A Gallup Poll conducted in May found that 69 percent of Americans oppose the death penalty for juveniles, while only 26 percent favor it. Kentucky is one of 22 states that allow people under age 18 to be executed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based group that opposes capital punishment.

The UK Survey Research Center found in 2000 that only 15.5 percent of people polled thought the death penalty was the most appropriate penalty for a juvenile convicted of aggravated murder.

State Sen. Robert Stivers, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee that serves as a gateway for death penalty legislation, said he doubts the poll results will change the minds of many legislators who support capital punishment. A bill supported by Mr. Patton to do away with the juvenile death penalty failed earlier this year.

"Polls are done in a vacuum, but when people hear about the things these people have done, it would be interesting to see how their opinions change," Mr. Stivers said.

Public Advocate Ernie Lewis said that comment bothered him.

"I'm a little concerned that elected officials, when confronted with these kind of poll results, aren't a little more concerned about being out of step with the people of Kentucky. When a consistent pattern develops over time, it's up to elected officials to respond to that," he said.

The poll was conducted July 20 through Aug. 26 by the Survey Research Center. It asked 882 Kentuckians about various issues, including the juvenile death penalty. The poll's margin of error was plus or minus 3.3 percentage points.

The poll question was long. Ron Langley, director of the Survey Research Center, said he had initial concerns about that but said the fact that only 5 percent said "don't know" indicates they understood what was being asked.

The state Department for Public Advocacy, which represents most inmates on Kentucky's death row, commissioned the juvenile death penalty question and released the results this week in its "Legislative Update" that goes to state senators and representatives.

Mr. Lewis said the release wasn't timed to coincide with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision this week not to take up Mr. Stanford's case and the issue of whether executing juvenile offenders violates the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. "We just wanted legislators to have these results in their hands before they go back to Frankfort," he said.

Mr. Stanford, 39, was convicted of killing gas station attendant Baerbel Poore. Mr. Stanford and David Buchanan took turns raping and sodomizing Ms. Poore during a robbery at a gas station in Jefferson County before Mr. Stanford took Mr. Poore to a secluded spot and shot her twice in the head.

Mr. Buchanan, who is serving a life sentence, and Mr. Stanford then returned to the gas station, took two gallons of gasoline, 300 cartons of cigarettes and $143.07.

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