By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
PITTSBURG, Kan. —
An eye for an eye.
When the crime is premeditated, cold-blooded murder, the sentence should be death, 64 percent of Americans say in a Gallup survey. The polls have shown little change in recent years.
Despite that level of support, the death penalty is far from being a sure thing, and the debate is far from over.
In the past five years, five states — New Mexico, Illinois, New Jersey, New York and, on Wednesday, Connecticut — have abolished the death penalty.
Repeal proposals are pending in several other states including Kansas and Kentucky, while residents in California have gathered enough signatures for an initiative to throw out the death penalty in that state.
Thirty-three states still have the death penalty, according to Washington’s Death Penalty Information Center.
Perhaps no state has wrestled with the death penalty as often as Kansas, where its use has been reinstated and abolished numerous times in state’s 151-year history.
Other states — Texas, notably, and Oklahoma and Missouri — appear less conflicted.
A Missouri jury last month sentenced Chris Collings, of Wheaton, to death row for kidnapping, raping and killing 9-year-old Rowan Ford, of Stella.
On Jan. 5, the state of Oklahoma executed Gary Roland Welch at the state penitentiary in McAlester for the 1994 slaying of Robert Dean Hardcastle in Miami, Okla.
Debate over the death penalty has been the focus of a campuswide conversation at Pittsburg State University, with national experts such as Sister Helen Prejean, author of “Dead Man Walking,” and Rob Warden, a former Carthage resident now an expert on wrongful conviction, brought in to speak.
PSU officials said the effort may be the largest of its kind in the country, and it will culminate with the performance of the play “Dead Man Walking” April 26-29 in the Grubbs Studio Theatre.
The focus may be appropriate because the university has a unique tie to the death penalty.
On March 30, 1996, PSU student Carrie Williams was murdered across the street from the campus by Gary Kleypas, also a PSU student. Kleypas had been released from a Missouri prison in 1992 after serving 15 years of a 30-year sentence for killing an elderly neighbor in 1977.
In March 1998, he was the first person to be sentenced to death in Kansas following the 1994 reinstatement of the death penalty. In 2004, after the Kansas Supreme Court ruled capital punishment unconstitutional, Kleypas was scheduled for resentencing.
In 2006, however, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the Kansas death penalty was constitutional, and a new jury was chosen to deliberate on a punishment for Kleypas. In September 2008, a jury again recommended the death penalty for the then 53-year-old Kleypas.
He is one of nine prisoners on death row in Kansas at the El Dorado Correctional Facility.
Kristy Magee, a graduate student in the Department of Communications, has been spearheading the PSU Dead Man Walking Theatre Project, which was founded in 2003 to integrate the power of theater and academic study into the national debate on the death penalty.
Prejean, the internationally acclaimed human rights activist,” first conjured the idea for the theater project based on her book in 1998. She called actor and director Tim Robbins, who wrote, produced and directed the film adaptation of her book, and he also agreed to write a stage play of her story. He decided to use it as a tool to create deeper thinking about the death penalty in the nation’s high schools and colleges, and required that any school producing the play must also agree to involve at least two other academic departments to provide courses related to the death penalty.
Since the launch of the project, more than 200 high schools and colleges across the country have brought the issue to life on their campuses.
Magee says she hopes the end result is that no matter what a person’s position on capital punishment, he or she will arrive at his or her conclusions only after careful consideration and research, while maintaining a respect for the viewpoints of others.
“My goal was to basically spread awareness about the death penalty across campus and really promote the collaborative process for respecting one another’s opinions.
“I really wanted to create a dialogue, because it’s not something that a lot of college campuses talk about and I think it’s something important, very critical to explore, to educate ourselves on.”
What began as a singular theater project escalated to include a yearlong study by 10 departments.
The Social Work and the Court Process class evaluated the history of inmates on death row. A poetry class, which read portions of Prejean’s books, also assigned students to write original poetry on themes of capital punishment, love/hate and forgiveness.
John Ross, PSU music professor, worked for almost a year to compose an original score for the theater production, and the Ethics in Mass Communication class held debates concerning ethical issues with the death penalty.
The Women’s Studies class held death penalty discussions and debates concerning the media’s involvement, while Macro Projects in Social Sciences coordinated a visit by Warden, a legal affairs journalist and executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law.
Warden, a Carthage native and former Joplin Globe reporter, discussed with several hundred students and faculty members last month some of the cases in which wrongful convictions led to the death penalty; in several cases, he was involved in inmates being exonerated.
Warden also recalled from his days of reporting for the Globe the case of Charles Harvey Odom, who was executed in 1964 after a jury in Carthage sentenced him to death for the 1961 abduction, rape and beating of 13-year-old Lisa Shuh, who survived the attack.
“It was a clear-cut case, there’s no question. The fact is, when you look at the horrible cases, do they deserve it, yeah ... the electric chair. The problem is, it is so hard to distinguish who is innocent and who is guilty; the system has shown itself to be so inaccurate.”
He also noted that in most instances, the lengthy death penalty appeals prevent an actual execution.
“A person is more likely to die on death row of natural causes,” Warden said.
The audience was divided after hearing Warden speak.
Cindy Buntain, a social work student from Fort Scott, Kan., said students in her career path are “supposed to have empathy, and I do.”
“But in clear-cut cases ... well, people like that, there is no place on Earth for them,” she said. “I don’t like to feel that way, but if my daughter had been killed ...”
A student cast member whose 20-year-old cousin was fatally stabbed in Wichita in 2010 had a different viewpoint. The prosecutor sought the death penalty in her cousin’s case; the jury instead found the defendant not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect.
“The rest of the family wanted it, but I have had strong opinions about it since I was a child. I was against it. It won’t bring him back,” said Elle Walker, a freshman at PSU. In the play, Walker plays Emily Percy, the sister of the victim, who is named Hope.
“It’s easy to draw from my personal experience,” Walker said.