Kentucky lawmakers vote to put limits on death penalty

Published 9:16 pm Friday, March 25, 2022

Kentucky would make the death penalty off-limits for some defendants diagnosed with severe mental illnesses under a bill that won final legislative approval Friday.

The Republican-led Senate voted 25-9 to send the measure to Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, capping a long effort led by death penalty opponents to restrict the use of capital punishment.

Another proposal that crossed the finish line after languishing for years would require future constables and deputy constables to obtain training and law enforcement certification before wielding police powers. The bill won final Senate passage 23-11 and goes to Beshear’s desk.

With four days left in the 60-day session, stacks of bills are awaiting final decisions by the GOP-dominated legislature. Lawmakers have plenty of heavy lifting ahead, highlighted by work to finish a new two-year state budget and to decide on tax legislation. The House has endorsed phasing out individual income taxes while extending the state sales tax to more services.

Two contentious bills dealing with charter schools and safety net programs are awaiting Senate decisions. One measure would allow initial charter school openings in Kentucky, targeting Louisville and northern Kentucky. The bill would set up a permanent funding stream for charters. The other proposal would tighten rules for public assistance programs.

High-profile bills to legalize medical marijuana and sports betting in Kentucky are struggling to garner Senate support after winning House passage. Republican Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer acknowledged the uphill fight for the sports wagering measure, which he supports.

“It’s going to have a hard time getting the votes to pass,” he said Friday. “It’s still alive. It’s been assigned to a committee. But it’s going to take a lot of energy to get it moving over the next few days.”

Lawmakers are scheduled to be in session next Tuesday and Wednesday before taking an extended break to give the governor time to review bills and decide which ones to sign or veto. They’re scheduled to reconvene for two wrap-up days in mid-April before ending the session.

On Friday, supporters of shielding severely mentally ill defendants from the death penalty achieved their yearslong goal with Senate passage of the measure. Death penalty foes have failed to make headway with legislation seeking an outright abolishment of capital punishment in Kentucky.

Under the bill headed to the governor, the limited death penalty ban would apply to defendants with a documented history — including a diagnosis from a mental health professional — of certain mental disorders and who had active symptoms at the time of the offense. The disorders include schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder and delusional disorder.

“It in no way absolves defendants of legal responsibilities for their crimes,” Republican Sen. Julie Raque Adams said in presenting the measure. “They can still be tried, convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms, including life without parole.”

The bill would not be applied retroactively to the 26 prisoners now on Kentucky’s death row.

In opposing the bill, Thayer portrayed it as a “slippery slope for getting rid of the death penalty.”

Calling himself a death penalty proponent, Thayer said: “I think it is an appropriate punishment for someone who has committed the most heinous of crimes by taking someone else’s life, found guilty by a jury of their peers and sentenced to death.”

Last year, similar legislation passed the House but stalled in the Senate. Since then, the bill’s supporters consulted key senators in crafting the revised version that cleared the legislature.

The last execution in Kentucky was in 2008.

Meanwhile, the bill requiring training for future constables wanting to wield police powers also triggered a long Senate debate Friday. The bill would not apply to current constables.

It would require people assuming the role starting in 2023 to receive certification like other law enforcement officers before exercising such police powers as making traffic stops and arrests.

In urging support for the measure, Republican Sen. Wil Schroder said: “Should someone who’s going to arrest an individual in the commonwealth of Kentucky … have training? To me, that’s not a hard question.”

Republican Sen. Ralph Alvarado opposed the bill, saying it would “effectively do away with this office.” Opponents say not nearly enough training slots will be set aside for future constables.

Alvarado said the measure would worsen policing shortages in rural Kentucky, echoing objections raised during the House debate.

“This is going to hurt law enforcement, particularly in rural counties,” Alvarado said.

Supporters said future constables not obtaining the training would still retain various duties, including serving subpoenas, directing traffic, providing funeral escorts and collecting fees.