The biggest changes usually occur so slowly that it can be hard to see the change happening. When some threshold is finally crossed, we notice the change and it feels like things have happened faster than they have.
The death of the death penalty is like that. The death penalty has been dying for several years now, ever since DNA evidence exposed the hot mess that is our criminal justice system with its systemic, structural, institutional preference for convictions over truth. The death penalty will likely continue dying for several more years before it can finally be laid to rest.
But there is little doubt that it is dying. Not unlike the way in which we have gradually come to accept the wrongness of institutionalized racism, institutionalized homophobia, and institutionalized sexism our culture is coming to accept the wrongness of institutionalized execution.
In Kentucky, there are (at least) three clues that point to the changing tide of opinion. The least of them is an online petition demanding an end to Kentucky's death penalty that, just this week, crossed 2,000 signatures. Every legislator in the Kentucky House and Senate has gotten notices of how many people in their district have signed. Some of them have gotten well over a hundred such notices.
More concretely, those very same legislators have begun to respond to the turning tide of public opinion.
State Senator Gerald Neal, for example, has filed a bill to abolish the death penalty with the Senate Judiciary Committee every year for a very long time. But after ignoring these bills for years, the committee this year agreed to a hearing. The committee heard expert testimony about the extremely high financial cost associated with the death penalty, a recent decision by the American Law Institute to remove capital punishment from their model penal code, and a recent study conducted by the American Bar Association that found Kentucky's death penalty process to be so wantonly deficient that it virtually guarantees that innocent people will be executed.
This past Monday, the Kentucky House Judiciary Committee voted on HCR 173 and sent it to the floor with a recommendation for a vote by the entire House. HCR 173 would create a task force to develop a plan for making the changes recommended by the American Bar Association, including the cost. It remains to be seen whether the House will pass this bill and, if it does, whether a matching bill will be brought up and passed by the Senate, so that the task force could go to Governor Beshear's desk.
Whether or not this comes to pass in 2012, it is clear that the people's attitude toward the death penalty has changed. What is also clear is that, exactly the way they are supposed to do, albeit slower than death penalty opponents like Senator Neal would like, the people's representatives are listening. Whatever happens with the measures this year, there will be more of them and more support next year, and more even than that the year after next. One day in the not so distant future they are going to abolish the death penalty in Kentucky.
Louisville.com's The Arena section features opinions from active participants in the city's politics. Their viewpoints are not those of Louisville.com (a website is an inanimate object and, as such, has no opinions).