“The death penalty should be off the table,” says Kurtis. As a law student at Washburn in the 1960’s, Bill Kurtis supported the death penalty. He “believed in the system” and thought that it would be infallible when death was a possible punishment. On November 11, 2006, he told a crowd of 250 people at his alma mater that he now believes differently. “Because of too many mistakes, the death penalty should be off the table.” Native Kansan Bill Kurtis was the keynote speaker at the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty Annual Meeting on Friday, November 11, 2005, at 7:30 p.m. at Washburn University in Topeka. The title of his presentation was “What I have Learned about the Death Penalty.”
Bill Kurtis told of watching as Illinois Governor Ryan began to grapple with the number of wrongfully convicted men on that state’s death row. Kurtis, then still a death penalty supporter, began his own investigation of the system of capital punishment. Using his skills as a journalist and attorney, he sought to find out how mistakes were made in death penalty cases and missed by subsequent judges and attorneys. This study led to his book The Death Penalty on Trial: Crisis in American Justice.
His investigation uncovered a variety of errors that put innocent people on death row. These critical mistakes included attorneys who clearly were not competent to do death penalty cases, exculpatory evidence withheld from the jury that could have cleared the defendant, mistakes by forensic experts, the use of snitch testimony. He talked about the pressure for conviction and how that sometimes influenced decisions by prosecutors. Kurtis related the story of how a seemingly small mistake by an inexperienced forensic expert in the Krone case became a key factor in Ray Krone’s wrongful conviction in Arizona. Lest his listeners be complacent, Kurtis reminded his audience that Kansas’s system is not immune from making mistakes. Having seen the fallibility of the system in its actual application, Kurtis is now a death penalty opponent.
Near the end of his remarks, he recalled the eventual change of heart of another distinguished American, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun. Justice Blackmun had ruled on many capital punishment cases and upheld the death penalty many times. Kurtis recalled how, late in his life, Justice Blackmun changed his mind. Justice Blackmun acknowledged the cumulative weight of the evidence and concluded he was “obligated simply to concede that the death penalty experiment has failed.”
Mr. Kurtis, a lawyer and journalist, is well known for his work with the TV shows Cold Case Files and American Justice. He has also authored a book on the death penalty titled The Death Penalty on Trial: Crisis in American Justice. In The Death Penalty on Trial Kurtis revisits two harrowing murder scenes, studies the evidence, and explores the tactical decisions made before and during trial, which sent two innocent men to death row. Through these cases, he identifies eight main reasons why the wrong people are condemned to death, including overzealous and dishonest prosecutors, corrupt policemen, unreliable witnesses and expert witnesses, incompetent defense attorneys, biased judges, and jailhouse informants. Kurtis believes the new jewel of forensic science, DNA, is revealing more than innocence and guilt, it is opening a window into the criminal justice system that could touch off a revolution of reform. Ultimately, he concludes that the possibility for error in our justice system is simply too great to allow the death penalty to stand as our ultimate punishment.