TOPEKA, Kansas — Kansas death penalty opponents said Wednesday a bill that would shorten the appeals process amounts to a "leaky Band-Aid" on a broken system.
At issue is a bill approved by the Senate last month that would set a limit of three and six months for the appeals to be prepared by attorneys, argued and decided by the seven-member Kansas Supreme Court. There is currently no time limit.
Some legislators and the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty argued Wednesday that the changes would increase the chances an innocent person will be executed and that the cases are too complex to rush through the system.
"It is just a fact that death penalty cases take a long time," said Ronald Wurtz, a retired public defender and former chief of the Kansas Death Penalty Defense Unit. "However, judicial review takes so long because American capital sentences are so fraught with error that seriously undermines their reliability."
Five death penalty cases were reversed on their appeal by the Kansas Supreme Court. All death sentences are automatically appealed to the seven-member court. Kansas reinstated the death penalty in 1994 but has not carried out any executions.
The Senate bill would place limits on the appeals in time, length allowed for documents and the scope of the issues that can be raised. The Senate passed the bill on Feb. 13 by a 27-13 margin.
However, senators stuck the language in a House bill that previously passed that chamber and the bill was assigned to a conference committee for differences to be negotiated by three members each of the House and Senate.
Rep. Steven Becker, a Republican from Buhler and a retired district court judge, acknowledged the death penalty process takes time but he warned against rushing to get cases completed and inmates executed.
"As long as the death penalty is part of our imperfect system, there will always be the unacceptable possibility of the execution of an innocent person," Becker said. "When tinkering with the absolute punishment, we should be looking at ways to improve safeguards and decrease the likelihood of mistakes."
Supporters say death penalty appeals take too long under the current structure when attorneys are granted repeated time extensions to prepare their case. The bill has been endorsed by Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt.
Kristafer Ailslieger, deputy solicitor general in the attorney general's office, testified on Schmidt's behalf and said the bill balances swift justice and defendants' constitutional rights.
"This change will ensure that the court still retains the ability to independently review the record and take notice of potential errors that may have affected the sentence," Ailslieger said.