Missouri could benefit from death-penalty moratorium

Thursday, May 14, 2009

By David Hulshof, Scott Moon and Bob Towner

Last week, Michael Jensen wrote a column titled "Economy is no excuse to end death penalty." We heartily agree. On the other hand, we would like to propose substantial reasons to argue for a moratorium on the death penalty in Missouri. A moratorium would mean that our state would take three years to study the application of the death penalty and justice issues before proceeding with any further executions. We note the following:

A study by Columbia University stated that more than 80 percent of those with death penalty sentences in Missouri were too poor to afford their own attorney. Unequal application of the death penalty occurs in Missouri and other states based on legal defense, ethnicity, plea bargaining, inadequate investigation, faulty testimony and evidence and a host of other issues.

A study by Missouri State University indicated that 60 percent of Missourians polled said that they would support a three-year delay (moratorium) of scheduled executions to investigate sentencing practices and the effects of the death penalty. Again, when given alternatives to the death penalty such as life without parole or life with 25 years before the possibility of parole, the majority of Missourians polled preferred those alternatives to the death penalty.

Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1973, more than 125 people on death row, including three Missouri men, have been found innocent. These people were fortunate that their cases were re-examined. This certainly begs the question whether others who were innocent were not so fortunate. Certainly, no one would want to see an innocent person be put to death.

In particular, a moratorium would affect the impending execution of Dennis Skillicorn, which is currently set for May 20. Jensen makes the statement that "it is time that he [Skillicorn] pays the ultimate price for his crime." This understanding of justice is normally referred to as retributive.

Skillicorn's crime is that he was an accomplice to the murder of Richard Drummond. Skillicorn is remorseful and has acknowledged his part in the crime. He has spent the past decade trying to make amends for his actions. Skillicorn has worked with hospice ministry for dying prisoners, compiled and edited a book aimed at helping troubled youths make good choices and organized campaigns to raise money for scholarships for family members of murder victims. His legal representation and family are pleading for a life sentence.

We advocate a moratorium not only on the grounds of compassion and moral values as referenced by Jensen, but also upon the benefit to society as demonstrated by the actions of Dennis Skillicorn while in prison. We advocate restorative justice: the principle that you cannot change the fact that a heinous crime has been committed but need to acknowledge when a person has gone forward to make a positive contribution to society.

As ministers, we have offered support to those who have lost loved ones to heinous crimes. Sometimes those loved ones have been our friends. We have prayed for the victims and also the perpetrators. The death penalty will not bring our loved ones back nor end the pain of our loss. Like a majority of our fellow citizens, we believe Missouri should do a thorough examination of how we use capital punishment. This, too, is justice. We advocate a moratorium on the death penalty.

The Rev. David Hulshof is pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church. The Rev. Scott Moon is pastor of Grace United Methodist Church. The Rev. Bob Towner is pastor of Christ Episcopal Church.

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