FRANKFORT (AP) — Joe Gutmann not only prosecuted cases that sent convicted killers to Kentucky’s death row, he believed in capital punishment as a deterrent against violent crime. But somewhere along the way he changed his mind.
The former Jefferson County assistant commonwealth’s attorney testified Wednesday in support of legislation aimed at abolishing the death penalty in Kentucky.
The bill would replace the death penalty with life imprisonment without possibility of parole.
“We can put our heads in the sand and believe something like putting an innocent person (to death) can’t happen,” Gutmann said. “It can. Our system of justice … is run by humans and humans make mistakes.”
Death penalty opponents made their case to the House Judiciary Committee but came up short during the roll-call vote. The bill was defeated when eight committee members voted for it and nine opposed it.
Afterward, the bill’s supporters said the committee hearing signaled the progress made by death penalty foes. In past years, bills to end capital punishment died quietly without getting committee hearings or votes.
“This was a step on the way to abolition,” said Rep. David Floyd, R-Bardstown, the bill’s lead sponsor.
Kentucky has executed three people since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court allowed states to resume using the death penalty. Just over 30 people are on death row at the Kentucky State Penitentiary at Eddyville.
The push to abolish the death penalty comes at a time when executions are suspended in Kentucky. A Kentucky judge ordered the suspension over questions about the drugs used for lethal injections and how to determine the mental capacity of those sentenced to death.
Floyd decided not to seek re-election this year, but predicted that other lawmakers will take the lead in promoting the issue. He said the bill’s fate depends on attracting grassroots support in Kentucky. But he said that taking a stand against the death penalty would not condemn lawmakers to defeat at the next election.
“A principled stand on something this serious is something that will not affect their chances at re-election,” he said. “People respect that.”
The issue spurred emotional debate among lawmakers.
One opponent of the bill, Democratic Rep. Gerald Watkins of Paducah, offered grisly details involving the murder cases of two current death row inmates in Kentucky. One man fatally stabbed his two teenage sisters and a 5-year-old boy and burned the bodies, Watkins said. Another burglarized the home of a 73-year-old woman, beat her to death, put her body in a car trunk and set the vehicle on fire in a rural area.
The others on death row have “a resume with similar qualifications,” he said. Watkins said he sees the death penalty as a form of “justice,” and said it should remain a sentencing option.
Rep. Johnny Bell, D-Glasgow, also opposed the bill. He said he wants convicted killers “to feel the same terror and the same dread” as their victims.
The bill’s supporters portrayed the death penalty as a flawed process that sometimes sends innocent people to death row. They also pointed to the high legal costs borne by taxpayers during years of appeals.
“Capital punishment really is the quintessential big, broken government program,” said Marc Hyden, national advocacy coordinator for the group Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty.
He said the death penalty is inconsistent with the principle of valuing life.
Gutmann said he once supported the death penalty because he saw it as a deterrent against violent crime, believed it would be applied fairly and thought an innocent person would never end up on death row.
“I was wrong on all the counts,” he said.
The legislation is House Bill 203.