Senators asked to change death penalty

Three bills seeking to eliminate, or at least control, the state’s use of the death penalty were discussed in a Missouri Senate committee on Wednesday.

“The death penalty has been, and always will be, one of our most polarizing political topics, because it goes beyond simple policy and touches on some of our most fundamental beliefs as human beings,” Sen. Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, said in explaining her proposal to eliminate the death penalty this year. “The topic raises very visceral reactions in people, and I understand that.”

Walsh told the Senate’s Progress and Development Committee that she had a close friend who was murdered. “So, I do know the ramifications of this,” she said. “And I understand, when I say I’m for abolishing the death penalty, what I’m doing and why I am against it.”

Rita Linhardt of the Missouri Catholic Conference said: “A lot of faith traditions teach us that life is sacred, and that we’re all called to respect the life and dignity of every person.

“The death penalty disregards the sanctity and dignity of life.”

And the conviction rate isn’t always reliable.

“Glenn Ford was released (this week) from a Louisiana death row after spending 30 years in prison for a crime that he did not commit,” Linhardt reported. “He was, actually, the 144th person on death row to be exonerated.

“That equals out to about — for every nine executions, there’s one person who’s exonerated. That’s a pretty high number.”

And, she said, death penalty cases are much more expensive than murder trials where the highest possible punishment is life without parole.

Agreeing was a University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor active in efforts to get inmates released from death row.

“In Maryland, they found they were spending seven times as much for capital punishment as they were spending on life without parole as an alternative sentence,” Sean O’Brien testified. “In Kansas, they just updated their study within the last two weeks, and it does reveal a similar cost gap.”

The Kansas study also shows much of the extra cost comes at the trial level, he added.

State Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, sponsors a separate bill that would put more controls on the process, without eliminating it.

“This bill was introduced in response to what I call the ‘shenanigans’ that went on around the recent executions,” he said. “There was a lot of lack of transparency.”

His bill still would let the Corrections department write the rules for executions, but he would make it clear that the execution team cannot include any person linked to the sale for manufacture of equipment or chemicals used in executions.

Rather than let the department set the rules, Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, thinks the state should create an 11-member public “Capital Sentencing Procedures and Protocols Commission” that would include representatives of the attorney general’s office, public defenders, prosecutors, criminal defense lawyers, doctors, pharmacists, judges and crime victims.

Executions in the state would be put on hold while the commission developed an execution protocol, which it would have to do within a year.

Like Schaaf’s proposal, Justice wants to make the process more public, and stop the “very weird set of circumstances” that currently exists with Missouri’s execution plans.

Jeff Stack of Columbia, representing Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, told the lawmakers several studies show the death penalty really doesn’t deter murders or other crimes.

“It’s a moral bankruptcy, I think, in policy for our state,” Stack said.

The penalty also is used unevenly, he said.

“For instance, St. Louis County has sentenced to death the most individuals in our state,” Stack explained, “but, meanwhile, next door, St. Louis City has had at least three times as many homicides.”

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