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Coalition backs bill to halt executions

by Phillip Sitter/For the News Tribune | January 22, 2015 at 5:20 a.m. | Updated January 22, 2015 at 5:20 a.m.
Representatives of a coalition of groups on Wednesday backed Rep. John Rizzo's, D-Kansas City, bill proposing a moratorium on executions until a task force makes specific policy recommendations to promote fairness and accuracy in the system. From left are Sarah Rossi, director of Policy and Advocacy, ACLU of Missouri; Paul Litton, co-chair of the American Bar Association's Death Penalty Assessment Team in Missouri; Staci Pratt, state coordinator of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty; Steve Saloom, former policy director for the Innocence Project; and Rev. Dr. Cassandra Gould, Missouri Faith Voices.

A coalition of groups Wednesday endorsed a Missouri lawmaker's bill to halt executions until steps are taken to promote fairness and accuracy in the use of the death penalty.

Representatives of the American Bar Association's Death Penalty Assessment Team in Missouri, the Innocence Project, Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, the ACLU of Missouri, the Jefferson City chapter of the NAACP and Missouri Faith Voices offered their support for the bill of Rep. John Rizzo, D-Kansas City, to appoint a task force to examine the "changes in policy most critical in preventing wrongful convictions and promoting fairness in the Missouri capital punishment system."

House Bill 561 would impose a moratorium on executions between Aug. 28, 2015, and Jan. 1, 2018. At the end of the moratorium, the task force would also be dissolved. But before its dissolution, the task force would seek to identify specific legislative, regulatory, judicial and executive actions needed to address any identified problems with the death penalty in Missouri.

Rizzo was unable to attend the press conference Wednesday, but said in a statement, "I am convinced that any meaningful discussion about the ultimate penalty must be proceeded by a thorough state specific assessment of the accuracy and fairness with which it is applied."

In 2012, the American Bar Association's (ABA) Death Penalty Assessment Team in Missouri assessed the state's death penalty system. While the team found strengths in things like crime laboratory accreditation and the provision of defense services in the state, the team also reported areas that needed serious reform.

Paul Litton, co-chair of the ABA assessment team, highlighted several of the areas needing reform Wednesday, including the preservation of DNA evidence, recording of law enforcement interrogation of suspects and the list of aggravating factors used in capital cases to determine the applicability of the death penalty.

"Missouri does not require the preservation of biological evidence for as long as capital defendants remain incarcerated. Thus, not all defendants will be able to obtain DNA testing of evidence that could prove their innocence," Litton said of the need for post-conviction DNA testing in the state.

Steve Saloom, former policy director for the Innocence Project, described his group's experiences with post-conviction DNA testing. Sometimes, post-conviction DNA testing proved a defendant did indeed commit a crime. Other times, it turned out people were innocent. "You don't know until you test," Saloom said.

Litton also said the ABA team found Missouri law does not require full recordings of custodial interrogations of suspects by law enforcement officers and the list of 17 aggravating factors meant to guide prosecutors and juries in applying the death penalty only to the worst of the worst offenders is too broad.

"Virtually any intentional homicide can qualify for a death sentence in Missouri," Litton said.

"Missouri's accelerated pace of executions, even in the midst of concerns over actual innocence and racial disparities in sentencing, necessitates a moratorium now, and legislative remedies," said Staci Pratt, state coordinator at Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

Last year, the state of Missouri executed 10 people, a new record for the state.

Saloom summarized the hope of the groups backing Rizzo's moratorium on the use of the death penalty. While he said criminal justice systems are not perfect and cannot be perfect, "they are the bureaucracies we've created, that are populated by human beings, to make key decisions along the way, and we have to accept that they are always going to be imperfect. But we don't have to accept when they are obviously imperfect and there are ways that we can fix them."



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