As a candidate for Governor, I kept my position of opposition but said if it passed that I would not veto it. I was comfortable letting the elected legislators by majority vote decide the outcome. Sworn in as Governor in January 1979, I gave little or no thought about the possibility of the death penalty coming up. But, as it turned out, the same voters that elected me also voted in enough change in the Legislature’s makeup that by late March, both Houses had passed and sent a death penalty bill for Kansas to my desk.
I had ten days to make a decision. My staff assumed I would sign the bill, so there was little discussion as there would have been on almost all other legislation passed. Thinking in depth for the first time, serious doubts about the rightness of the death penalty began to grow in me. As I share with students, there are times when ones values conflict. Yes, I had made a promise to the citizens, but now with the hard reality sinking in, my opposition became passionate and much more real. My staff warned me of the political consequences I would face, and I did not disagree. But on the tenth and final day—exactly forty years ago today—I made my decision.
Below, I share the full text of my Veto Message for legislation that would have reinstated capital punishment in Kansas. This message was submitted to the Kansas House of Representatives on April 4th, 1979, and it was the first of four times I vetoed this policy in my time as Governor (1979-1987). The death penalty was eventually passed into law on April 23rd, 1994. We have yet to see it used and often the costs of appeals, delays, and so forth have been much higher than simply "throwing away the key" when the circumstances suggest. Strong but unsuccessful efforts have been made in recent years to repeal that law, including during the current legislative session, but for now it will be up to the people to make it a priority for their legislators.
April 4, 1979
I believe that, in a civilized society, penalties applied by the state against those who break the law can only be justified for their rehabilitative, punitive, or deterrent value. I find that capital punishment fails all three of these standards.
I am an optimist. I believe that society can find a way to deal with violence without using violence. I am confident that the State of Kansas can protect its citizens without taking the lives of its criminals. It is for these reasons that I veto this bill.