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Digging In: KyCIR reporter discusses death penalty in Kentucky

A photo of the Kentucky State Penitentiary.
Kentucky Department of Corrections
The Kentucky State Penitentiary in Lyon County.

Reporter R.G. Dunlop examined capital punishment in Kentucky and found a system beset with delays, disparities and high costs.

The 26 people sentenced to death in Kentucky are waiting for an execution that may never come.

This is one of the major findings from a recent investigation by R.G. Dunlop, a reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

Dunlop interviewed more than 50 criminal justice experts, attorneys, victims’ families and people on death row to get an inside look at how capital punishment operates in Kentucky — and its problems.

He found the system is plagued with lengthy delays — Kentuckians spend more time on death row than anywhere in the nation. There are also racial disparities, inconsistencies with how the death penalty is applied, and exorbitant costs that come with capital punishment.

But there’s been little effort among lawmakers to address these issues, Dunlop found.

The topic of the death penalty is in the spotlight, too. State legislators are considering two proposals that deal with the matter.

Click the player above to hear Dunlop talk with LPM’s Bill Burton about his report, which published earlier this week.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Bill Burton: R.G. you’ve spent some time digging in to the topic of capital punishment in Kentucky. What can you tell us about your findings.

R.G. Dunlop: We interviewed more than 50 criminal justice experts, attorneys, legislators, family members of murder victims and people that have been on death row in Kentucky. We found that the system that sentences people to death by execution is extremely costly, riddled with delays and racial disparities, and inconsistently applied. Since capital punishment in the United States was reinstated in 1976, more than 80 people have been sentenced to death in Kentucky. At least half of them have had their sentences reversed, according to a study we reviewed. Three people have been executed in Kentucky during that time. Only about a half-dozen states have put fewer people to death during the same period.

Compared to the majority of other states, there aren’t very many people on death row in Kentucky — 25 men and one woman. But the average time that they have spent there, 26 years, is longer than for inmates in any other state.

And while those Kentucky inmates are on death row, they often wage lengthy and expensive legal battles, trying to stave off their execution or prove their innocence.

Burton: Why does this matter right now?

Dunlop: Well, Kentucky legislators are talking about the issue. There currently are two proposals in the General Assembly that deal at least in part with capital punishment. One seeks to abolish the practice altogether. It mirrors other bills filed in recent years that would have eliminated the death penalty. None of those bills gained much traction, despite waning public support for executing murderers.

But I interviewed several lawmakers — supporters and opponents alike — who believe the end of the death penalty in the state is only a matter of time.

In the meantime, though, there doesn’t appear to be much, if any, appetite among legislators or judges to address the system’s shortcomings.

The other piece of legislation is a sweeping, Republican-generated criminal-justice bill that would, among many other things, increase the penalties for some crimes to include capital punishment.

Kentucky’s constitution gives the governor the sole authority to commute death sentences. But when he was asked last year about proposed legislation to abolish the death penalty, Gov. Andy Beshear said he thought capital punishment is appropriate “in limited circumstances.”

Burton: What can you tell us about Karu Gene White?

Dunlop: Karu Gene White has been on death row in Kentucky for nearly 44 years — longer than any other inmate in the state — for his role in three Breathitt County murders in 1979. His time on death row is exceeded by sentences for only about a dozen inmates facing execution nationwide.

I reported on White’s case in 2011 while working for The Courier Journal. At the time, he’d outlived the attorney who prosecuted him, the judge who presided over his trial, and the Kentucky Supreme Court justice who wrote the December 1983 opinion upholding White’s conviction. That story, 13 years ago, raised many of the same questions that are unresolved today.

And then, as now, we found White’s case to be emblematic of a capital punishment that many say is broken.

White, who is 65 years old, has two pending legal challenges to his death sentence. Both could take years to resolve. Either case could lead to White being removed from death row.

So, for now, he and the two dozen other people sentenced to death by execution in Kentucky are stuck, waiting. And it’s not just the inmates affected by this. Family members of murder victims are also left in limbo, with some feeling that the justice promised to them was never delivered.

We will be following the story.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.