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SPOTLIGHT
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Capital mistakes

Published on -9/5/2012, 10:20 AM

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It is probably fortunate Kansas doesn't actually execute those it commits to death row. The odds appear good something goes awry with most capital trials, forcing the process to start over. That's tough to pull off if the defendant isn't around.

The most recent such case to be overturned was Scott Cheever, convicted of fatally shooting Greenwood County Sheriff Matt Samuels in 2005. The Kansas Supreme Court threw out the conviction two weeks ago because of testimony given by one of the prosecution's expert witnesses.

It marks the sixth reversal of a conviction by the same court in a capital murder case -- out of six. That's roughly one-fourth of the 26 death sentences imposed since 1994, when Kansas reinstated capital punishment. The state's highest court cited egregious trial errors each time.

We understand mistakes can happen -- and do. It's becoming a rather frequent occurrence here in the Sunflower State. And even the most unintended error runs the risk of putting an innocent person to death.

Groups such as the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty are using the latest reversal to sound their cause once again.

"We think the death penalty fails as a policy," said Donna Schneweis, chairwoman of the group. "We can't always rely on the system to catch (mistakes) before (the execution is) carried out."

Schneweis would prefer a maximum sentence of life in prison without parole.

She won't find support for that position from Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, however.

"I really believe there are cases where giving juries that option is appropriate for the pursuit of justice," Schmidt said.

We would tend to side with the attorney general on this issue. Some criminal acts simply are too heinous to continue justifying that person's mere existence.

But it is obvious the system needs some work. Actually, a lot of work, given the 100-percent conviction reversal rate of late. Why have taxpayers foot a 70-percent-higher bill for a death penalty case if there isn't a chance we'll impose the penalty?

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net

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