It’s Long Past Time to End the Death Penalty in Missouri

Missouri is one of only a handful of states that still regularly executes its citizens. On April 9th of this year, Missouri carried out its first execution of 2024, killing Brian Dorsey despite a clemency campaign that had unprecedented support from correctional officers and a former prison warden. Although the death penalty is still legal in 27 states and at the federal level, many states no longer use capital punishment, or have a moratorium in place. In the past decade, Missouri has carried out 23 executions, the fourth highest number in the country behind Texas, Florida, and Georgia. Empower Missouri is staunchly opposed to capital punishment for many reasons, which we will explore here.

Disproportionate Punishment 

The death penalty is applied unevenly and with demonstrated bias. Approximately 20,000 homicides are committed every year in the United States, and yet, only 0.022% of all individuals convicted of murder are sentenced to death. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the primary indicator for whether or not someone will be sentenced to death is the county where the crime happened, rather than the severity of the offense. Since 1976, only 2% of U.S. counties have been responsible for the majority of cases leading to executions. Of the 114 Missouri counties, the vast majority of death sentences resulting in executions come from just three counties: Jackson, St. Louis County, and St. Louis City.

In addition to geography, race also plays a role in determining who is sentenced to be executed. People of color, and especially Black people, are more likely to be prosecuted for capital murder, receive death sentences, and be executed. The legacy of the death penalty can be directly traced to the history of lynching and slavery, and state and nationwide reports have long shown that there is pervasive racial prejudice in the application of the death penalty. A 2015 report found that racial bias is particularly prevalent in Missouri, and that the race of both the victim and the defendant is a primary factor: 81% of individuals executed in Missouri were convicted of killing white victims, despite white victims making up less than 40% of all murder victims in the state, while 60% of all homicide victims are Black. Executions are seven times more likely in cases involving white victims than in cases involving Black victims. 

Individuals with intellectual disabilities and severe mental illness are also consistently overrepresented in capital prosecution, despite the Supreme Court ruling in 2002 in Atkins v. Virgina that found such executions unconstitutional and in violation of the 8th amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The Court ultimately left it up to states to define if a defendant has an intellectual disability. In 2021, Missouri executed Ernest Johnson, despite clear evidence of his intellectual disability. Intersectionality between race and disability status also plays a major factor: a recent report from the Death Penalty Information Center found that more than 80% of intellectually disabled defendants sentenced to death are persons of color. 

Executions are not Crime Deterrence

There is no evidence that the death penalty serves as a deterrent to violent crime, despite the pervasive rhetoric touted in support of capital punishment. In fact, evidence shows that the use of capital punishment is linked to higher crime rates: between 1990 and 2019, murder rates were consistently higher in states who utilize the death penalty than states who do not. A Death Penalty Information Center study of 30 years of FBI Uniform Crime Report homicide data found that the South has consistently led the nation with the highest murder rates, while also accounting for more than 80% of executions. In contrast, the Northeast, which has fewer than 0.5% of all executions, has consistently had the lowest murder rate. A survey of the former and present presidents of the country’s top academic criminological societies found that 88% of these experts rejected the notion that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to murder. 

The Issue of Innocence

Capital punishment always carries the risk that an innocent person may be executed. Since 1973, more than 170 people who had been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in the U.S. have been exonerated. Missouri death row exonerees include: Clarence Richard Dexter, convicted in 1991, charges dismissed in 1999; Eric Clemmons, convicted in 1987 and acquitted in 2000; Joseph Amrine, convicted in 1986, charges dismissed in 2003; Reginald Griffin, convicted in 1983, charges dismissed in 2013. All four cases had incidents of false witness testimony and prosecutorial misconduct. Several individuals executed by Missouri maintained their innocence until their last day and had strong evidence to support their claims, including Larry Griffin (executed in 1995), and Walter Barton (executed in 2020). 

In addition to all of the above, the death penalty is far more expensive than sentencing a person to life in prison. More than a dozen states have tried to capture the cost of death penalty cases and found evidence that they are up to 10 times more expensive than other comparable cases. Why then do we continue to use the death penalty in Missouri, at a rate higher than most of the country?

Death Penalty Legislation in Missouri

During the 2024 legislative session, Missouri lawmakers have filed multiple bills related to the death penalty. While several of these bills would eliminate or reduce the use of capital punishment, we also face legislation seeking to expand the use of the death penalty.

Current Legislation Seeking to Limit the Use of Capital Punishment
  • HB 1780, sponsored by Rep. Chad Perkins (R- Bowling Green). This bill would abolish the death penalty and change the sentences of anyone currently on death row to life without parole. It was never sent to committee. 
  • SB 859, sponsored by Sen. Karla May (D- St. Louis). This bill would mandate that anyone convicted of first degree murder who was found to have a serious mental illness at the time of the offense would be ineligible for the death penalty. It was sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee, but never given a hearing.
  • HB 2468, sponsored by Rep. Bishop Davidson (R- Greene County). This bill would close a loophole that currently exists in Missouri law that allows judges to instate the death penalty in the event that a jury cannot reach a decision in the punishment phase of a capital trial. Instead, the bill would require the judge to sentence the defendant to life without the possibility of parole in the case of a hung jury. The death sentence could still be applied when unanimously agreed upon by the jury. This bill was heard in the House General Laws Committee on March 26, and voted do pass on April 9. You can read Empower’s testimony in support of this bill here
Current Legislation Seeking to Expand the Use of Capital Punishment
  • SB 1499, sponsored by Sen. Rick Brattin (R- Harrisonville). This bill would expand the use of the death penalty to the following non-homicide offenses: statutory rape in the first or second degree, rape in the first or second degree, and sexual trafficking of a child in the first degree. This bill was sent to the Judiciary Committee but not given a hearing. 
  • SB 951, sponsored by Sen. Mike Moon (R- Ash Grove). This bill would expand the use of the death penalty to the following non-homicide offenses: statutory rape in the first degree and sexual trafficking of a child in the first degree. It was heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 11, and voted out of Committee on March 25. It has not progressed any further. You can read Empower’s testimony in opposition here

These bills were clearly inspired by the bill signed into law in Florida in 2023. This legislation is clearly unconstitutional, as the Supreme Court ruled in 2008 in Kennedy v. Louisiana that the death penalty for non-homicide crimes is disproportionate to the crime and violates the 8th amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Victim advocates have argued that such laws will make it less likely that victims of sexual abuse will come forward, and will extend their suffering needlessly for years are the cases wind their way through the lengthy appeals process. There are legal challenges to this law already underway in Florida.

If you are interested in learning more about the fight to end capital punishment in Missouri and connecting with advocacy efforts, including clemency campaigns as well as legislative advocacy, check out our partners at Missourians to Abolish the Death Penalty.

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