Missouri needs to halt executions, examine its death penalty system

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

For the past several years I have sponsored legislation that would impose a moratorium on executions in Missouri while a commission does a complete study of the death penalty system in our state. This may seem a strange action for a person who, in principle, supports the death penalty. But I believe that this legislation is absolutely necessary in Missouri.

Since 1989, Missouri has executed 66 people, the fourth most of any state.

Legislation returning the death penalty to Missouri law was enacted over 30 years ago. Since then, Missouri has not had a comprehensive official review of the state's death penalty system.

With a punishment as final as death, it's long past time state officials take a pause to thoroughly examine our system of taking a life.

A death penalty moratorium is important because there is a fear that an innocent person could be executed. While there is much to be proud of in our criminal justice system, it is still a human system. Mistakes can be and have been made when it comes to the death penalty. Nationally, 129 people who were convicted and sentenced to death since 1973 have been exonerated. This includes three men in Missouri — Clarence Dexter, Eric Clemmons and Joe Amrine — who had their death sentences removed when evidence of their innocence came to light.

Legitimate concerns have been raised with our state's application of the death penalty. A Columbia Law School study in 2000 revealed that one-third of Missouri's death sentences were later reversed because of errors. A few individuals currently living under a death sentence in Missouri have raised credible claims of innocence. While I don't know if their claims are valid, the execution of even one innocent person destroys the integrity of the system.

How do innocent persons get sentenced to death? An examination of wrongful convictions reveals common threads: mistaken eyewitness identification, forced confessions, jailhouse snitches, poor legal representation, faulty evidence and misconduct by police and prosecutors. Many of these problems existed in the Illinois criminal justice system when Gov. George Ryan halted executions in 2000 after 13 death row exonerations.

A commission examined their death penalty system and recommended numerous reforms to prevent wrongful convictions. Some of these recommendations were adopted into law.

Surely we in Missouri also deserve to have the best possible criminal justice system we can create.

If we instituted a moratorium, a similar commission would examine all aspects of the death penalty as administered in the state, including the evidence used to obtain a homicide conviction, the experience level of attorneys, resources available to counsel, characteristics of those who receive a death sentence, the cost of the death penalty, criteria used by prosecutors in seeking the death penalty and the interests of the victims' families. The commission would report its findings and make recommendations to the General Assembly and the governor.

Regardless of one's position on the death penalty, all people want a fair and just criminal justice system. Missourians are no different. While surveys indicate majority support in principle for capital punishment, 60 percent of Missourians support a three-year moratorium and study of the state's death penalty (Center for Social Sciences and Public Policy Research, Missouri State University, 2004).

In addition, 300 Missouri church groups, businesses and civic organizations have signed resolutions calling for a moratorium on executions while a study takes place. The 2008 moratorium legislation had bipartisan support with 58 co-sponsors (14 Republicans, 44 Democrats). I hope we'll have more cosponsors in the 2009 session.

Our state currently requires cars to be inspected for safety every two years. And just as we wouldn't inspect our cars while driving them on the highway, we shouldn't examine our death penalty while executions continue. Missouri should take a pause in executions and do a thorough examination of how we use capital punishment. Justice demands no less.

Bill Deeken of Jefferson City represents the 114th District in the Missouri House of Representatives.

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