Emotional testimony in death penalty hearing

By: Phil White Email
By: Phil White Email

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TOPEKA, Kan A Kansas Senate Committee heard emotional testimony for and against the death penalty as it considers a bill that seeks to abolish capital punishment.

The Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony from Kansans who said they oppose the death penalty for moral reasons. Other death penalty opponents said capital murder cases and the appeals process cost the state too much money.

Senators also heard emotional pleas to allow prosecutors to still seek the death penalty in the worst murder cases.

The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing room was at capacity as Senators considered Senate Bill 126, which seeks to replace the death penalty with life in prison without parole.

Mary Head of Lawrence was part of the capacity crowd during the hearing on Senate Bill 126. She said her sister's 1984 murder in Colorado challenged her opposition to capital punishment, but she said she is still against sentencing anybody to death.

"I still reject the death penalty because it fails to heal families and communities," Head said.

Head argued the resources spent on capital murder cases would be better allocated toward solving murders and toward helping victims' families with counseling and other resources.

Another death penalty opponent, Eddie Lowry, was convicted of rape in 1983. He spent 11 years in prison and had to register as a sex offender after his release, but DNA evidence proved he was innocent in 2003.

"If the flaws that invaded my case somehow make their way into a death penalty case, the State of Kansas could commit one of the greatest miscarriages of justice imaginable," Lowry said.

Cindy Sanderholm of Arkansas City, whose daughter Jodi was kidnapped, raped and murdered in 2007, asked Senators to keep the death penalty in place for people like her daughter's killer, Justin Thurber.

"I know his death won't bring my daughter back, but if one murder can be stopped by his death, then her death won't have been in vain," Sanderholm said.

Jodi Sanderholm's sister, Jennifer Aldridge, told committee members she tries to teach her children there will consequences for doing wrong.

"By abolishing the death penalty, we as state are saying that it's okay to commit these heinous crimes because they will not be held accountable," she said. "Please don't put a dollar sign on my sister's life."

Missey Smith of Overland Park, whose daughter Kelsey was murdered in 2007 also favors the death penalty. Her daughter's killer entered a guilty plea in exchange for life in prison.

"They say that the death penalty doesn't help families. Yeah, it does," Smith said. "Our daughter's killer pled guilty to be shown the mercy that he didn't show Kelsey. I don't have to deal with him ever again."

Head, one of the death penalty opponents, said families have to go through the pain of losing their loved one all over again during the lengthy appeals process of capital murder cases.

"The thought of victims' families reliving those memories again and again throughout the appeals process is reason enough to put offenders in prison for life, thus providing families with some finality," she said.

Sen. Greg Smith, R-Overland Park, is Kelsey Smith's father. He serves as vice-chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, but he addressed the committee as a father rather than as a senator.

He said continual efforts to abolish the death penalty bring the painful memories back and he blasted legislators pushing the bill.

"You've brought these families that experienced this right back into it again and I blame you for that," Smith said. "Stay out of it."

The Senate Judiciary Committee has not yet debated or taken any action on the bill. Written testimony will accept written testimony accepted until 10:30 a.m. Tuesday.

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