Chenault introduces death penalty bill

House proposal would allow execution in cases of first-degree murder

Posted: Sunday, January 11, 2009

ANCHORAGE - The state House will consider a bill to reinstate the death penalty when the Alaska Legislature gathers in 10 days.

Incoming House Speaker Mike Chenault pre-filed the bill and it has the initial backing of Gov. Sarah Palin.

Opponents, including influential members of the state Senate, say the death penalty is ineffective, expensive and racist.

Chenault, R-Nikiski, pushed the measure near the end of the session last year. He said it reflects his feeling about people who prey upon the weak. Chenault said his niece was kidnapped as a child 20 years ago. She was not harmed, but the incident stuck with him, he said.

Chenault's bill would allow the death penalty in cases of first-degree murder. The bill calls for execution by lethal injection.

His bill would give the local district attorney the option of seeking the death penalty in a particular case, if the state attorney general agreed. A jury would decide if the punishment was warranted and make a recommendation to the judge, who would decide. The state Supreme Court would automatically review each death penalty sentence.

Palin said she favors bringing the death penalty back to Alaska, particularly for cases where children are murdered. Someone who does that should not ever be able to again, she said.

"Coming out of the chute, knowing that a lawmaker would pursue the death penalty in Alaska for murder, then I would support it," Palin said. "And then we'll see where he goes with the specifics."

Thirty-six states and the federal government have the death penalty.

Alaska had a death penalty until 1957, when the territorial legislature abolished it.

Eight men were executed under civil authority in Alaska between 1900 and 1957, according to a study by the University of Alaska Anchorage, all for murder, and all by hanging. Only two of them were white, the study found.

Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, a former prosecutor, said he's seen data that the death penalty tends to fall disproportionately on racial minorities and costs more to impose than life in prison, including the cost of prosecution and appeals.

"It's a bill that we would have to spend a lot of time discussing before I became convinced that it's a good idea," French said.

French is chairman of the state Senate Judiciary Committee, which would review a death penalty bill.

State House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said she will try to keep the bill from passing the House. The death penalty is not a deterrent and involves years of appeals, she said.

"Of course now, today, with the change in the ability to get scientific evidence and the DNA testing, horror upon horrors, we're finding many people were falsely convicted," Kerttula said.

Nationwide, the number of executions is decreasing. Thirty-seven people were executed in nine states last year, the lowest total in 14 years, according to statistics compiled by the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center. Based on executions already scheduled for 2009, this year may see an increase.

The last time the issue was heavily debated in Alaska, the Catholic Church lobbied against bringing executions back to the state. Steven Moore, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Anchorage, said the church would again speak out on it.

Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, acknowledged that administering a death penalty is costly and not a deterrent to violent crime. He still supports it. For some horrible crimes, Ramras said, it is simply a fair punishment.

He cited the case of Joshua Wade, who is awaiting trial on charges that he murdered nurse practitioner Mindy Schloss. It's a federal case, so he is eligible for the death penalty regardless of Alaska law.

Federal prosecutors are considering asking for a death penalty in the case because it "involved torture and serious physical abuse," according to charging documents.

"I'm like Clint Eastwood on this issue," Ramras said. "Hang 'em high."

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