It took the state of Texas more than two decades to execute the man responsible for the grisly murder of the mother of U.S. Navy veteran Celeste Dixon.
Dixon’s emotional journey starting with the shooting death of Marguerite Dixon on Aug. 18, 1986, in Hockley, Texas, and carrying through the death by lethal injection of convicted killer Michael Richard on Sept. 25, 2007, in Huntsville, Texas, was a portal into grief, hate, compassion, revenge and healing.
Irreversible tragedy led Dixon to assess her advocacy of capital punishment. She became uncomfortable with the reality of promoting, even looking forward to, Richard's final breath.
"I didn’t like the way I felt," said Dixon, of Larned. "I didn’t want to let anger control my life. And, of course, none of this was going to bring my mother back."
She concluded the death penalty offered a false promise of release from her suffering. State-sanctioned executions aren't the right answer to heinous crime, she said.
Dixon recently shared thoughts on Kansas’ death penalty, along with five other people with similar life-shattering experiences, with members of the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee. The majority of these witnesses argued for discontinuation of capital punishment. Kansas has 10 people under sentence of death, but the state has executed no one in more than 50 years.
The fate of a bill introduced in the 2019 session to replace capital punishment with a sentence of life without parole was sealed Friday moments after the House committee deadlocked 6-6.
Rep. Russ Jennings, a Lakin Republican and chairman of the corrections committee, broke the tie on House Bill 2282.
"The chair votes 'no.' The bill fails," Jennings said.
Greg Smith, who works for the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department, urged Jennings and his colleagues to repel the latest legislative attempt to draw a curtain on capital punishment. He said advocates were again searching the justice system for some "undetected, undefined or perceived error" with the capital punishment statute to justify repeal.
He refuted claims that capital punishment was unconstitutional, too expensive, failed as a deterrent, likely to exacerbate false convictions and unneeded since no one had been executed in Kansas since reinstatement of the death penalty in 1994.
Smith's connection to the issue went beyond his role as a special deputy in the sheriff’s department.
"I provide a unique perspective," he said. "Not only have I responded to crime scenes and worked with families of a homicide victim, I have been that family member as well."
A dozen years ago, Smith’s daughter, 18-year-old Kelsey, was kidnapped from a mall in Johnson County before being raped and strangled by her abductor. The killer, Edwin Hall, was eligible for the death penalty in Kansas and Missouri, where her body was found. A plea agreement concluded by Kansas prosecutors resulted in a sentence of life without parole — the same sanction sought under the House bill.
"I refuse to be silent on this issue. I must speak on behalf of Kelsey. Her voice won’t be silenced," Smith said. "I can say that I support the death penalty. To repeal it would be a miscarriage of justice."
North Newton resident Stanley Bohn, who urged the House committee to abolish the death penalty, was drawn into the debate after his sister was beaten, raped, strangled and shot five times in her Indiana home on March 14, 1969. Helen Klassen’s murderer was never apprehended.
Bohn said contemplating his sister’s last moments was painful, and the execution of anyone responsible would serve only to fuel the family’s trauma.
"Enduring the string of hearings, trials, appeals and finally killing that mentally twisted person would add to the load we carry," Bohn said. "And, most of all, ending executions could help us all to be more caring and humane persons."
Mary Head, of Lawrence, said she always opposed the death penalty on moral grounds. Her view was challenged but unchanged when her sister, Patricia Erikson, was shot to death by an intruder May 17, 1984, in Norwood, Colo.
A suspect in the case was identified, but no one was put on trial for the murder.
"I still reject the death penalty for many reasons," Head said. "But I especially recognize that it fails to help families and communities in the aftermath of tragedy. Kansas reinstated the death penalty in 1994, pours millions into this system with few results and will do so for the foreseeable future."