Posted on Fri, Jan. 22, 2010
Victims’ families argue to keep death penalty
BY JEANNINE KORANDA
The Wichita Eagle
TOPEKA - The state’s death penalty should be retained as justice for victims of killers like the Carr brothers and Justin Thurber, lawmakers heard Thursday.
“You cannot put a price tag on my sister’s life,” Jennifer Sanderholm told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “That is ultimately what you will do if you abolish the death penalty.”
Thurber raped, sodomized and murdered 19-year-old Jodi Sanderholm of Arkansas City in January 2007. He was sentenced to die by lethal injection a little more than two years later.
Thurber feared the death penalty and tried to plea bargain to take capital punishment off the table the night before his trial, Jennifer Sanderholm told the lawmakers, her voice racked with emotion.
“He was scared, and he didn’t want to die,” she said, flanked by her mother, Cindy, and father, Brian, who also testified.
Supporters of the death penalty said it is used sparingly — only for the most egregious crimes —and shouldn’t be weighed in terms of cost.
“By repealing the death penalty in Kansas, you will be placing the lives of others in jeopardy,” said Lois Muller, mother of Heather Muller.
“Heather was murdered by Jonathan and Reginald Carr Dec. 15, 2000,” said Muller. “Words can’t begin to put an understanding to the impact that sentence has had on our lives.”
The father of Brad Heyka, Larry Heyka, also testified. And Amy Scott, who had dated Heyka, testified Wednesday.
Muller, Heyka and two others were raped and murdered by the Carr brothers in Wichita.
Two bills would repeal
Lawmakers are considering two bills to repeal the death penalty. The committee wrapped up three days of testimony Thursday on two proposals.
Senate Bill 375 would eliminate the death penalty for crimes committed on or after July 1 and create the crime of aggravated murder, which would come with an automatic sentence of life without parole.
It would not affect the 10 people now on death row.
Senate Bill 208, which was debated last year but sent back to committee, would eliminate the death sentence after July 1, 2009. It has drawn questions about what would happen if one of the current death penalty cases were re-sentenced.
Those who back a repeal of the death penalty have told lawmakers it is too costly, not a deterrent to criminals and could end the lives of innocent people.
“After a while, increases in the severity don’t contribute to the deterrent effect of the penalty,” University of Colorado sociology professor Michael Radelet said Tuesday.
Money spent on death penalty cases would deter more crime if it were used to catch criminals and solve crimes, he said.
A 2003 state audit showed that costs in death penalty cases averaged $1.2 million, compared with $740,000 for other murder cases.
In testimony Wednesday, Sam Millsap, a former district attorney from San Antonio said he worried that the country’s justice system is not equipped to decide who lives and who dies.
He has prosecuted cases that led to executions, but in 2005, a newspaper investigation indicated his prosecution of Ruben Cantu may have resulted in the execution of an innocent man, he said.
“Because our criminal justice system, on its best day, is driven by decisions that are made by imperfect human beings who make mistakes, there is compelling evidence that our criminal justice system is simply not competent to decide who may live and who must die,” he said.
Kansas reinstated the death penalty in 1994, but the state has not executed anyone since 1965.
Essentially, the state has what amounts to a very expensive life-without-parole system, Millsap said. Suggestion: Speed up the execution process
Brian Sanderholm noted the same long delay between conviction and execution, and suggested that one way to reduce the cost of death penalty cases would be to shorten the process.
“If these monsters were made to fear a swiftly executed death sentence, then maybe the state would have saved all the money it spent locating my daughter’s body and prosecuting her killer,” he said. “But most importantly, maybe we would still have Jodi.”
Wyandotte County District Attorney Jerome Gorman argued that the death penalty is used sparingly in Kansas.
“The worst of the worst deserve the death penalty. Not every homicide deserves the death penalty, but the worst of the worst,” he said.
Chairman Sen. Tim Owens, R-Overland Park, said his committee would work on the bills Jan. 29.
“This is a horrible tough situation, you have to decide . . . we are talking about life and death,” said Kyle Smith, representing the Kansas Peace Officers’ Association.
“There are some brutal, twisted people out there that need to meet their maker and let them work it out,” Smith said. “In those cases, the sooner we can arrange that meeting, I think the better this world would be.”