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Alaska News

Death penalty debate resumes

  • Author: Sean Cockerham
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published January 10, 2009

Incoming state House speaker Mike Chenault is pushing to reinstate the death penalty in Alaska, and Gov. Sarah Palin is all for it.

So is state Rep. Jay Ramras, who says "hang 'em high," and that he would pass a death penalty bill out of the House Judiciary Committee, which he chairs.

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

Chenault's death penalty bill was one of dozens submitted Friday, the first day legislators can pre-file in advance of this year's legislative session, which starts Jan. 20. Proposals filed Friday range from $250 million in bonds to help with an in-state natural gas pipeline to designating the malamute as the state dog.

The death penalty debate is likely to be emotional on both sides. It's an issue that lawmakers have not seriously wrestled with in more than a decade.

Chenault, a Republican from Nikiski, brought up his interest in reinstating the death penalty near the end of last year's session. He said it reflects his feeling about people who prey upon the weak. Chenault said his niece was kidnapped as a child some 20 years ago and that, while the family got her back unharmed, the incident stuck with him over the years.

Chenault's bill would allow the death penalty in cases of first-degree murder. But he has also talked about possibly including child molesters under it as well. The method of execution would be lethal injection under the bill.

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, a Republican, said in phone interview that 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."


Alaska last had a serious death penalty debate in 1998, when then-Wrangell Republican Sen. Robin Taylor tried unsuccessfully to get a statewide advisory vote on whether to bring it back.

Thirty-six states have the death penalty, as does the federal government.

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, and race remains part of the debate.

Anchorage Democratic Sen. Hollis French said he's seen data that the death penalty tends to fall disproportionately on racial minorities and actually 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 the chairman of the state Senate Judiciary Committee. So if Chenault's death penalty bill made it out of the state House, it would likely go before French

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

"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. However, 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.

Fairbanks Republican Ramras agreed a death penalty is costly and not a deterrent to violent crime. But 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 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."

Chenault's death penalty bill is HB 9, although his staff said the number could change.

Find Sean Cockerham online at or call him at 257-4344.

Dozens of bills were submitted Friday, the first day for state legislators to pre-file in advance of the legislative session that begins on Jan. 20. They include proposals to:

• Raise the Alaska minimum wage from $7.15 an hour to $8.75 an hour. SB 1 is by Sens. Bill Wielechowski, Johnny Ellis, Joe Thomas and Bettye Davis.

• Extend the suspension of the state's eight-cent-a-gallon motor fuel tax until Aug. 31, 2011. SB 14 is by Bettye Davis.

• Prohibit people under 18 from using a cell phone while driving. HB 15 is by Rep. Berta Gardner.

• Raise the age to buy tobacco to 21. HB 17 is by Rep. Harry Crawford.

• Allow people who didn't receive a Permanent Fund dividend last year to get an additional $1,200 on their 2009 dividend to make up for the fact they didn't get the "resource rebate" last year like other Alaskans. HB 18 is by Rep. Anna Fairclough.

• Stop the state, including the permanent fund, from investing in companies doing business in Sudan, the African country whose government has been blamed for genocidal killing in the Darfur region. Gov. Sarah Palin is planning to introduce her own Darfur divestment bill. The ones filed Friday by Reps. Les Gara, Berta Gardner, Pete Petersen, Beth Kertulla, Bob Lynn and Sen. Hollis French are HB 5, HB 45 and SB 37.

• Make the state attorney general an elected, rather than appointed, position. HJR 4, by Rep. Harry Crawford, is a constitutional amendment.


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