Kansas Capital Punishment Abolitionist: “We’re Not Good Enough at Killing People”


TOPEKA – Buhler Mennonite Church pastor Willmar Harder said the answer to the murder was not the imposition of the state-sanctioned death penalty.

“We’re not good enough at killing people,” Harder said at the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty annual rally on Saturday.

He said the implementation of absolute certainty of lethal injection death in Kansas could not be justified when absolute certainty of guilt was not required by the state’s judicial system. Since 1973, he said, 186 people sentenced to death in the United States have been cleared.

“What if we killed them?” Said harder.

Religious and judicial arguments were woven into political, ethical, historical and personal questions raised at an online conference that brought together a Mennonite pastor with an Oscar-winning filmmaker, a former Republican Party chairman of Sedgwick County, a Kansas public defender of working capital case and a woman whose sister was murdered.

Kansas had a death penalty law when a 1972 United States Supreme Court ruling struck down the death penalty nationwide. The Supreme Court restored in 1976 the constitutionality of the death penalty. Kansas Governor John Carlin vetoed four reinstatement bills from 1979 to 1985. In 1994, Governor Joan Finney authorized a bill to become law without his signature.

In 2010, the Kansas Senate was one vote away from passing a law that would replace the death penalty with life without parole for the felony of aggravated murder. The death penalty policy continues to thwart the passage of a reform bill, but Kansas has not executed anyone since 1965.

“The system is so faulty”

Julia Spainhour, chief prosecutor of the state capital’s public defender’s office, said the law enforcement and judicial system were inadequate to bear the burden of the death penalty. The state government is not providing adequate funding to indigent defendants in these complex cases, she said. In addition, she said, prosecutors who obtain death sentences do not welcome attempts to exonerate people who might not be guilty of these crimes.

“Our system is so flawed that we cannot trust it to choose who lives and who dies,” she said.

Dalton Glasscock, the former Chairman of the Sedgwick County Republican Party, said he was brought up in a conservative, evangelical family who embraced capital punishment. His perspective evolved when he came to accept that the death penalty was incompatible with a perspective that all life was sacred and that life spanned the period from conception to natural death.

He said it was disappointing that so many politicians were pro-life on abortion, but not when it came to people accused of horrific crimes.

“As a conservative Republican,” Glasscock said, “the death penalty is incompatible with the culture of life.”

Late exemption

Lawrence’s Oscar-winning director and screenwriter Kevin Willmott expressed his opposition to the death penalty by recounting the 1944 execution and 70 years later exoneration of 14-year-old George Stinney Jr. in South Carolina.

The black child has been accused of brutally murdering two white girls. He was questioned by the police without his parents or the presence of a lawyer. The two-hour trial presented little evidence. The all-white jury convicted in 10 minutes. His lawyer refused to appeal.

South Carolina officials struggled to use an adult electric chair. The thigh-high boots were too wide and the 5-foot-1, 90-pound boy’s skull did not reach the helmet. He was forced to sit on a Bible, Willmott said, to raise him as if he were a youngster in a barber’s chair.

Willmott said the reality of Stinney’s wrongful execution conflicted with Perry Mason’s popular image of a justice system that caused some bad guys to go to jail and the good guys, even though they were initially framed, were released.

“Not so much in real life,” said Willmott, professor of film at the University of Kansas. “Not really.”

There is a long way to go for the United States to become the type of multiracial democracy that prevents so many innocent people from being thrown into jail, he said. Capital punishment laws requiring harsh judgments on life and death, most often applied to the poor and those without adequate legal representation, do not advance the formation of an equal and just society, he said. declared.

A sister’s plea

Mary Head, a retired teacher from Kansas, was a missionary teaching English in Japan when contacted about her sister’s death on May 17, 1984. Her brother Pat was shot twice while he was sleeping at her house in Norwood, Colorado. It was a shock, Head said, as the sisters had spoken on the phone so recently.

“In that call, she told me that she finally broke up with her abusive boyfriend and found her own place,” Head said. “But he refused to accept the breakup and insisted on getting it back.”

Law enforcement officers focused on the ex-boyfriend, but a judge ruled in a preliminary hearing that there was not enough evidence to prosecute. No one has been tried for the murder, and the case has officially remained in abeyance.

The goals of grieving a sister, family healing, community safety and empowering a killer have been blocked, she said. Even in those times, she said, the quest was not to see a murderer die for his evil crime.

“My thoughts were never enlightened on the possibility of Pat’s killer being executed,” Head said. “Seeking the death penalty has never crossed my mind. “

Since Kansas reinstated the death penalty, approximately 3,000 homicides have taken place in the state. Some of it is unresolved and the criminal justice system should spend taxpayer dollars on death penalty cases to fund more work on unresolved cases, she said.

As it stands, Head said, millions of dollars have been spent on the tiny fraction of the cases that resulted in a death sentence and were consumed by appeals.

“I can only imagine how painful the years-long appeal process is for families with the continued reopening of wounds,” she said. “The idea that the families of victims relive these memories over and over again throughout the appeal process is reason enough to put offenders in prison for life.


Comments are closed.