Photo by Frankie Steele

December 19, 2012

2012 People Issue: The Rev. Patrick Delahanty

The Abolitionist

If you’ve ever walked through the bustling halls of the capitol annex in Frankfort during a session of Kentucky’s General Assembly over the past three decades, there’s a good chance you’ve run into the Rev. Pat Delahanty.

One of the founders of the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty 24 years ago, Delahanty is a tireless advocate for reforming the state’s capital punishment system. He balances his time building a grassroots network across the commonwealth and giving state legislators information about how our justice system isn’t working.

Last year, his work was bolstered by an American Bar Association report that found such deep flaws in Kentucky’s system that they recommended suspending the death penalty here.

“Even if you support the death penalty, you probably don’t support the one we have,” Delahanty says. “So knowing what we have now gives us more information to go out and show people what they’re supporting.”

The Catholic priest, who lives in Old Louisville, is already gearing up for next year’s General Assembly, and from his recent discussions with legislators, he senses momentum is on their side.

“I think Kentucky could be the first state in the South (to abolish the death penalty),” he says. “It won’t be 2013 — the short session is not enough time, and we’re not at that point yet — but we’re getting close to it. 2014 is possible, 2015 is more likely.”

The momentum Delahanty perceives comes not just from the ABA report, but a growing national trend, as five states have abandoned the death penalty over the last five years, and a few more are expected to come close next year. This movement has been strengthened by the growing evolution on the issue among evangelical and small-government conservatives who are not only reluctant to risk executing people in an error-prone system, but also wary of the financial costs that come with it.

“These people are for small government, and if the government can’t be trusted to fill a pothole, why should it be trusted to determine who lives and dies?” Delahanty asks.

While reform advocates still face tough obstacles in Kentucky — particularly among Democrats such as House Speaker Greg Stumbo and Attorney General Jack Conway — Delahanty says he’s received encouraging news from Republicans who used to be strong supporters of the death penalty.

“These conversations are giving us hope that things are actually changing in Kentucky,” he says.

For those lawmakers who remain on the fence, they can expect a visit from Delahanty, armed with statistics, information, and a moral argument that Kentucky should never take the chance of executing an innocent person. 

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