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What’s the cost: Execution vs. life without parole

A St. Louis-area state senator is trying to get his colleagues to examine the difference in costs for seeking and imposing the death penalty versus a sentence of life without parole, saying it is a first step toward a larger discussion about whether to change the state’s death penalty statutes.

Sen. Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis, has filed a bill that would require the state auditor to study the cost differentials, and on Tuesday, he presented to the Senate rules committee a resolution that would require legislative researchers to make a similar analysis.

The committee’s discussion of the resolution was brief, but some of the senators asked Keaveny where he came down on the fundamental question of capital punishment.

“Is there a crime so egregious that you would believe a (death penalty) mandate would be necessary regardless of the costs?” asked Majority Floor Leader Ron Richard.

Keaveny told committee member he does not think it was the state’s role to put citizens to death, but he stressed his bill did not deal with the question of repeal but was about acquiring information.

“People naturally migrate into should we have (the death penalty) or not, but it’s premature to have that conversation when we talk about this bill,” Keaveny said. “It’s not about abolishing the death penalty, it’s about obtaining the facts.”

Many opponents of the death penalty argue it is costlier than pursuing life sentences, because capital cases require additional counsel for defendants, extended sentencing phases and many years of state and federal appeals.

Keaveny pushed a similar measure all the way to the Senate floor last session, where it was debated but never received a vote. He said he thinks opposition is the result of strong support for the death penalty.

“There are individuals who don’t want to know the answers, because they are so firm in their positions… and they probably don’t care what it costs,” Keaveny said.

Over the past few months, controversy has swirled around the state’s lethal injection protocol after the Department of Corrections changed the execution protocol to make the source of the lethal chemicals a state secret. Some state senators have suggested the department may be illegally transporting the drugs across state lines and have called for more transparency.

Bills in both chambers call for an execution moratorium until a commission of lawmakers, lawyers, doctors and state officials could study the method and develop or recommend a new one.

“There’s been a lot of controversy going on now in the Capitol about the secrecy surrounding the executions,” said Rita Lindhart, a member of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty who testified in favor of the resolution. “This is just another area where knowledge is power. When you know what something costs, you can find the inefficiencies and maybe some of them can be corrected.”

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