Kentucky's Death Penalty: A Comprehensive Look
Allen Ault admits to being a murderer.
But Ault isn’t behind bars, nor was he tried for his “crimes”; he’s currently dean of Criminal Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University. But as Ault told an interim joint committee on the judiciary earlier this month, he considers his actions as a director of corrections akin to premeditated murder.
“I have murdered five people as an agent of the state,” he said.
Ault said that many of his former colleagues have committed suicide or retreated into drugs to cope with their actions
“Corrections officials are expected to commit the most premeditated murder possible,” he said. “I mean, I had a policy book that thick. We rehearsed it. How premeditated could it be?”
Ault’s perspective is one that doesn’t often present itself in the debate to abolish the death penalty in Kentucky; usually, that debate centers on a battle between vengeance and forgiveness. Proponents of the death penalty argue that it’s a deterrent that works to prevent heinous crimes; others argue that it’s a moral and financial burden that the state cannot afford.
Correction: After the Supreme Court reversed a position on prohibition of capital punishment in the 1970s, Kentucky adopted a "permissive" death penalty statute. It allows juries to request a penalty up to and including death in cases of "aggravated" murder, wherein a homicide occurred in tandem with an serious offense. Since then, three people have been executed by the state.
A 2010 federal injunction has barred Kentucky’s correctional institutions from conducting executions due to concerns over how lethal injections are carried out. Those concerns have also halted executions in Oklahoma, Ohio, and—most recently—Arizona, where death row inmates reportedly suffered due to botched lethal injection procedures. Kentucky doesn’t possess the drug cocktail necessary to carry out executions, and is barred by the court from obtaining them.
Currently thirty-three people are in limbo as they sit on Kentucky’s death row. One of the 33 is a woman; four are African-American.
Another concern is the cost of carrying out the punishment itself, at about $80,000 per execution according to the Kentucky Justice & Public Safety Cabinet. And factoring in the costs of appeals, Ault and other experts say that the cost of keeping on inmate on death row can reach three times as much as an inmate who’s sentenced to life without parole.
In addition to the costs associated with housing, feeding and providing health care for the prisoners, some of whom have languished for nearly 30 years, it costs the state $140,000 a year to pay for their security detail, according to the Justice Cabinet.
But not everyone is moved by moral pleas or hawkish dollars-and-sense arguments against capital punishment.
Ray Larson, Fayette County’s Commonwealth’s Attorney, is arguably one of the most outspoken proponents of capital punishment in the state.
“It’s an appropriate punishment for somebody who chooses to take another life,” he said. “I’m just a believer that that’s an appropriate penalty. I don’t have to defend it; I think it’s an appropriate penalty.”
Larson has personally prosecuted cases resulting in death sentences. He doesn’t believe that the state is capable of prosecuting an innocent person, and says the death penalty prevents inmates sentenced to life without parole from murdering prison guards. Larson refutes a 2011 study by the American Bar Association which states that 64 percent of death sentences are fraught with errors because, he says, it was funded by a grant from the European Union, and is therefore not to be trusted.
Sen. Gerald Neal, a Louisville Democrat, has sponsored legislation to replace capital punishment with life without parole. He pointed out to colleagues that the date of the judiciary hearing was the anniversary of the exoneration of Larry Osborne.
In 1997, Osborne was accused of murdering two people, and in 1999 he was convicted and sentenced to death at 19 years old, making him the youngest in Kentucky’s history to receive the sentence. But a retrial in 2002 heard new testimony in his case, ultimately leading to his exoneration that year.
“The risk is still there,” Neal said.
It’s the kind of occurrence that worries Rep. David Floyd, a Republican from Bardstown who has sponsored legislation identical to Sen. Neal’s.
“You cannot have a death penalty in place where the possibility of the execution of an innocent does not occur,” Floyd said. “And so we must accept a certain level of risk if we are to continue the death penalty in Kentucky. So what is that risk? You know, all of us value human life. We shouldn’t support, however, a government program that can kill innocent people. It’s a government program, they’re run by human beings and mistakes can be made. And with the death penalty, innocent people can and I believe have been executed.”
Neal and Floyd filed similar legislation during the 2014 General Assembly, which stagnated in the the judiciary committees of their respective chambers.
Sen. Whitney Westerfield, a death penalty supporter, is a chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He says he isn’t sure if there’s support for their bills for the next General Assembly, and says he is more seriously considering legislation filed by his colleague and fellow death penalty supporter Sen. Robin Webb, which would add more safeguards to the current system rather than abolish it altogether.
“Honestly, I’m not sure what it would take. But I can’t say no to it,” Westerfield said. “Because it’s still something that I’m wrestling with… the alternative is to not have the system in place, and there’s still, most people aren’t ready to let go of that, and may not every be ready to let go of that. Because they believe it’s a just result, and they’re entitled to that belief as I my belief and you yours, but I, that’s the way it is, I guess.”
For Louisville Resident Ruth Lowe, her beliefs changed drastically. She says she wrestled with wishing vengeance against the man who murdered her brother in 1983. After years of harboring hatred, she ultimately found that her anger over the crime was hurting herself most of all.
“It’s like taking the role of God on yourself, and I believe that God’s love, if you’re open to it, can change, can change your heart, can change your mind,” Lowe said.
“And God’s love is not about vengeance.”