Speakers to argue for reform of state's death penalty

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Three speakers with the Missouri Road Trip for Justice will speak Friday at Southeast Missouri State University on how their own lives have affected the way they see the death penalty.

For the past three years, Bess Klassen Landis has been sharing her story on how violence influenced her life. She was 13 years old when her mother was raped and murdered in 1969, she said.

Her mother's murder was never solved, and Landis, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, struggled with her grief over the years.

"She has been grappling with what happened her entire life," said Colleen Cunningham of Missourians to Abolish the Death Penalty.

"What helped me heal was feeling safe again" and no longer making her mother's murderer into a monster, Landis said.

By realizing her mother's killer had been a human being, albeit possibly disturbed and suffering from mental illness, Landis was able to find peace, she said.

There are many reasons to take a good look at the concept behind the death penalty and realize it is in need of reform, Landis said.

The significant amount of money spent trying appeal after appeal in capital cases could be diverted to a victim's fund or go to aid cold case investigations, Landis said.

Two goals

The court process should accomplish two things: help keep dangerous people off the streets and bring closure to victims and their families, Landis said.

Society often confuses the two goals, she said.

"We don't have to fan the flames of hate to keep society safe. We can lock the person up forever," Landis said.

The possibility of human error in a death-penalty case is another reason why Landis said the death penalty should be scrutinized. While speaking around the country on these issues, she's met about a dozen people who have been exonerated -- proven innocent by the courts and set free, many from death row or life sentences.

Darryl Burton, exonerated last summer after serving 24 years in prison, will be speaking alongside Landis.

Burton was serving life without parole at Jefferson City Correctional Center, but he was released after Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan granted a motion acknowledging he had been wrongly convicted of a 1984 St. Louis murder.

Burton was convicted of slaying Donald Ball at a St. Louis gas station, despite the fact that physical evidence failed to link him to the crime, and the case hinged on eyewitness testimony.

A deal the prosecution made with an eyewitness was never disclosed to the jury, according to court record.

Paula Skillicorn, whose husband, Dennis, is on Missouri's death row awaiting execution, will also be speaking, Cunningham said.

A group called Interfaith Southeast Moratorium on Executions was recently formed in Southeast Missouri, making the presentation even more timely, Cunningham said.

The group is not so much against capital punishment as having a moratorium placed on executions until more can be learned about the death penalty, she said.

Friday's presentation is "right in line with what the group [Interfaith Southeast Moratorium on Executions] is saying: We need to know more about the death penalty," Cunningham said.

bdicosmo@semissourian.com

388-3635

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