Kansas ignored warning
Kansas legislators had received ample warning of a flaw in the states death penalty statute.
Former Attorney General Carla Stovall told lawmakers in 1995 of a problem with a bill concerning instructions to jurors. They ignored her advice.
In 2001, the Kansas Supreme Court ordered a new sentencing hearing for a death row inmate, citing the same problem with jury instructions. Still, legislators made no move to fix the law.
Last year, the state Supreme Court overturned the death penalty statute altogether. In a 4-3 decision, judges said the faulty jury instructions violated the constitution.
Lawmakers finally got a break this week, when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take the case. But they have little cause to celebrate.
Kansas had appealed the state Supreme Court decision, which invalidated the death sentences of seven convicted killers, including John E. Robinson, who was tried and sentenced in Johnson County.
The U.S. Supreme Courts decision offers some breathing room to lawmakers, who were understandably dismayed at having the sentences set aside. But the chances of the high court reinstating the death penalty statute are by no means guaranteed.
The mess in which Kansas finds itself should come as a warning to lawmakers everywhere. Death penalty statutes inevitably will be subjected to intense legal scrutiny, which is one of many reasons why life in prison is a better way to deal with people who commit heinous crimes.
If states must have death penalty laws, legislators must exercise every caution to make sure they are constitutional.