Kansas City Star

Kurtis puts death penalty on trial
Broadcaster's book highlights legal system's flaws
By Aaron Barnhart; The Kansas City Star
December 16, 2004


Bill Kurtis, the A&E host and Kansas booster, has had an uncomfortably up-close view of the worst in human nature for much of his career. But the man who covered the Manson family trials has lately been sickened by the idea that our justice system has sent innocent men to the death chamber.

“Look, I was for the death penalty,” Kurtis said in a telephone interview, “but looking at these cases and the rapidly increasing number of exonerations, there are just too many possibilities for error.” In the state of Illinois, where Kurtis Productions is based, 13 men were set free in the late 1990s after research — some of it done as a class project by journalism students — uncovered grave errors in their cases.

This troubled Kurtis, the Independence native whose long-running A&E series “Investigative Reports” had until then concentrated on the guilty. In 2000, he began to investigate the guilty to see whether they might be innocent. The resulting program was lost in the aftermath of 9/11, but now his findings have found a permanent home in a new book, The Death Penalty on Trial: Crisis in American Justice (PublicAffairs, $25).

“You have a system with too many working parts,” said Kurtis, who studied law at Washburn University in Topeka and put his legal training to use covering courts and crimes in a 38-year broadcast career. “We have malpractice lawsuits in medicine. We don't expect the Yankees to win all their games. And yet we assume the criminal justice system is without error.”

Kurtis is echoing what the outgoing governor of Illinois, George Ryan, said in 2003 to explain his decision to commute the sentences of 167 prisoners to life without parole. Ryan cited the findings of an independent panel of prosecutors, public officials and the novelist Scott Turow, which called for a major overhaul of the court system in capital cases. A majority of the panel said that based on their findings, they now favored abolishing the death penalty.

That was enough for Ryan, a pharmacist with no legal training, to clear death row.

“If we haven't got a system that works,” he said, “then we shouldn't have a system.”


The Death Penalty on Trial is a book-length study of two of the cases that Kurtis chose because, as he describes them, “everything should have worked perfectly.” One involved the killing of a single woman in which a man she had dated was falsely convicted, the other a bloody rampage in which the husband of one of the victims was sentenced to death. Both were fairly open-and-shut cases at the time, but in hindsight there were glaring errors in the way the evidence was presented and in the assumptions made by investigators. In the end, both men were set free.

Yet in many other cases, once the wheels of criminal justice begin turning, they are hard to stop. Just last week, the Chicago Tribune called into question the conviction of a father of three [Cameron Todd Willingham] on murder charges for a fire that killed his children. The Tribune's investigation quoted leading fire experts who now believe the deadly blaze was an accident, not arson. Unfortunately for the accused, the state of Texas carried out his execution in February. 

This is what troubles Kurtis most: that an innocent man could die simply because the system needed to convict. Now, however, DNA tests have begun to set dozens of convicts free while casting doubt on the process that put them on death row.

DNA has been a boon for Kurtis in more ways than one. One of his favorite in-house projects, the A&E series “Cold Case Files,” has blossomed into one of the channel's most popular shows.

In 1998 Kurtis began to notice stories of detectives solving long-open murder cases by relying on newfangled forensics and a little gumshoe detail. At first, A&E just nibbled on his idea, ordering four episodes. “Cold Case Files” now airs three nights a week (7 p.m. Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays on A&E), and a companion book was published this fall. Kurtis Productions is churning out 30 new episodes a year to meet demand.

“I'm the darling of law enforcement,” said its host.

Not to mention A&E, which became so proprietary about the show that it sued CBS and megaproducer Jerry Bruckheimer over the title of Bruckheimer's drama hit “Cold Case.” That's why you see a promo for the A&E show at the end of each episode of the CBS show.

Another kind of cold case is explored in Death Penalty on Trial. “It's really two cold cases, not typical ones because they're exonerated and we went back to find the mistake in the system,” Kurtis said. In doing so, he came to the realization that capital punishment must end because the current system cannot guarantee that future innocents won't be put to death.

“We have two little final obstacles to get over,” Kurtis said in his most broadcasterly voice. “One is that we have to convince people that life without parole is bad. Worse than killing somebody.

“And secondly, we have to get over the fact that it's some kind of closure for the families. The only reason the death penalty is still there is that we want to do something for the victims. It's ‘closure.' But what if you lose your wife from cancer, or a car wreck? Someone killed in Iraq — what do you do then? It's not closure. It never is.”


Recommended Reading
Death Penalty Issues

Truth in Justice