WICHITA, Kan. — An unprecedented constitutional challenge to the death penalty in Kansas begins today in the Sedgwick County District Court.
Attorneys for Kyle Young will argue that because the Kansas death penalty is racially discriminatory, arbitrary, and does not serve a valid safety purpose, it violates the Kansas and United States Constitutions.
Mr. Young is represented in this challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Punishment Project, the ACLU of Kansas, the law firms of Ali & Lockwood and Hogan Lovell, and the Kansas Death Penalty Defense Unit.
Over the course of the multi-day hearing, experts will testify that:
- The Kansas death penalty is racially discriminatory. The race of the victim and the race of the accused person has an outsized role in whether a person will face the death penalty;
- The jury selection process in capital trials, known as death qualification, disproportionately excludes Black potential jurors, especially Black women. The result is juries that are whiter, more prone to convict, and that don’t represent the community’s conscience;
- The Kansas death penalty exists in the context of historical racial violence and anti-Black racism. The line between lynching and the death penalty is undeniable;
- The Kansas death penalty is unfairly applied — whether a person is sentenced to death is a matter of geography, ineffective legal representation, and race; and
- The Kansas death penalty does not serve a valid public safety purpose. There is no evidence that the death penalty deters others from homicide despite its enormous financial cost to Kansans, and it carries the risk of executing the innocent.
“After almost 30 years, it is beyond time for the Kansas death penalty to face constitutional scrutiny,” said Cassandra Stubbs, director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project. “We have gathered a mountain of evidence that shows the Kansas death penalty violates the Constitution: it is racially discriminatory in its application and in its jury selection process, it is applied unfairly and rarely, and it does not create safety for Kansans. The death penalty in Kansas cannot withstand constitutional scrutiny.”
Kansas hasn’t executed a person since 1965, and of the only nine people on death row, three (or a third) are Black men.
A recent analysis found that the racially discriminatory results of death qualification are especially pronounced in Sedgwick County, with juries more likely to support the death penalty than the rest of the public.
“The jury is supposed to be the conscience of the community and our judicial system,” said Bria Nelson, an attorney with the ACLU of Kansas. “But through the death qualification process, jurors are denied their voices in the judicial process, and defendants are denied their right to a fair jury.”
This challenge comes amid declining use of the death penalty nationwide and increased judicial scrutiny. Two states, Washington and Connecticut, have held the death penalty unconstitutional under their state constitutions in recent years. Support for the death penalty is at a historic low in the modern era, death sentencing continues on a downward trajectory, and only a handful of states are carrying out executions.
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