Former high court judge- Death penalty should be abolished

Saturday, February 22, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- A former Missouri Supreme Court chief justice who once set execution dates for the condemned believes the death penalty process is "fatally flawed" and capital punishment should be abolished.

Charles B. Blackmar, who retired in 1992 after almost a decade on Missouri's highest court, said Friday his personal opposition to capital punishment is not new -- although he had not previously discussed it publicly -- nor did it deter him from affirming death sentences while on the bench.

"When I was a member of the Supreme Court I judged cases on the law and the evidence and did not let my personal views affect my decision," Blackmar, 80, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from his home in Florida.

"I did my best to apply the law, although while I was on the court, I made my view no secret to those who knew me well," Blackmar said.

Missouri resumed carrying out the death penalty in January 1989. Six men were executed while Blackmar served on the state Supreme Court; as chief justice from July 1989 through June 1991, his responsibilities included signing warrants setting execution dates in three of those cases.

After signing the death warrants, Blackmar said, he stepped into a lavatory in his chambers "so I could wash my hands."

Blackmar's call for abolishing the death penalty first appeared publicly last week when the St. Petersburg Times published a letter in which he commended the Florida newspaper's coverage of a case in which a man was recently freed from that state's death row.

In his letter published Feb. 15, Blackmar wrote that during his time on the Missouri court, "I can't say that I heard any death sentence appeals in which I had a substantial doubt about the defendant's guilt of some form of homicide."

But Blackmar went on, writing, "in several of our cases new trials were ordered because the defendant was inadequately represented by counsel, and nationwide experience demonstrates several recent cases in which a person sentenced to death was found to be improperly convicted."

Argued for death 15 times

Missouri Supreme Court records show that in about 70 capital cases in which Blackmar sat as a judge, he joined majorities in affirming death sentences about twice as often as he dissented.

Court records also show that from 1970 to 1974, before his 1983 appointment to the court by then-Gov. Kit Bond, Blackmar argued for the death penalty in 15 cases as a special assistant state attorney general.

Although he left the court about the time he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70, Blackmar still is occasionally called in as a special judge, including on appellate cases.

But in view of his public statements, Blackmar said he would probably not accept any death penalty cases "to avoid questions."

In his letter to the Florida paper, Blackmar wrote "the thought of executing an innocent person is repulsive."

"The process is so fatally flawed that the only solution lies in abolishing capital punishment. Most nations with which we share a common heritage have already taken this step," he wrote.

Stephen Limbaugh, the current chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court, said Friday he hadn't read Blackmar's letter.

"But I don't perceive that he is challenging the Missouri laws and processes concerning the death penalty," Limbaugh said. "Regardless of a personal stance for or against the imposition of the death penalty in certain cases, we judges are bound to follow the law by a sworn oath."

On Feb. 5, Kenneth Kenley became the 60th person executed in Missouri since the state resumed carrying out the death penalty.

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