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Death penalty debate shifts to House

2/23/2014

By JOHN MILBURN

By JOHN MILBURN

Associated Press

TOPEKA -- Convicted murderers sentenced to death in Kansas would face a shortened appeals process under a proposal a House committee plans to consider next week, but critics of the plan say it needs a much broader review.

The measure creates a three-and-a-half-year time limit for the appeals to be heard and decided by the court. It also sets limits on the length of documents that can be filed in death penalty to appeals to the state court, and requires the appeals to be placed ahead of all other cases pending before the justices. It would not affect any subsequent appeals, including those made to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Supporters have argued the Kansas death penalty process takes too long to get from a capital murder conviction to an execution. No one has been executed in the state since 1965. Nine men are under death sentences in state prisons, and no execution dates have been set because appeals still are pending in state courts. There are nine men on death row, and no defendant has been executed since the penalty was reinstated in 1994.

The measure passed the Senate on Feb. 13 and was assigned to a conference committee in the House for an organizational hearing this week.

Rep. John Rubin, chairman of the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee, said he intended to deviate from the normal process for bills placed in conference committee and would host hearings to hear from more House members about the bill.

"I want the wisdom and input of my committee," said Rubin, R-Shawnee.

The normal conference committee process involves three members from the House and three from the Senate to negotiate a final version of a bill without additional hearings or testimony.

House Speaker Ray Merrick said he would prefer the measure go through Rubin's full committee and be brought to the House floor for debate.

"It's a very important issue," said Merrick, a R-Stilwell. "I just think something like that needs to be debated and not stuck in conference committee."

House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, agreed with Merrick the bill deserved a House debate and needed "full discussion."

Opponents of the plan said rushing the appeals process increases the chances an innocent person will be executed.

Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty is one of the opponents to the bill. Mary Sloan, executive director of the coalition, said a number of concerns were raised during the Senate debate of the bill, including the fact death penalty appeals would push to the front of the line ahead of other non-capital cases awaiting Supreme Court action.

"The bill weakens the safeguards to protect the wrongfully convicted, and that it will increase costs to the taxpayer in an already expensive system," Sloan said.