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Study recommends changes to Missouri death penalty system

Study recommends changes to Missouri death penalty system

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Death penalty

Lethal injection table.

JEFFERSON CITY • Missouri prosecutors too often are given the opportunity to seek the death penalty in murder cases, according to a new report.

Aside from limiting the types of cases in which the death penalty can be sought, the American Bar Association-sponsored report makes more than 25 recommendations that it says would improve fairness in the use of capital punishment here. The recommendations range from new evidence preservation policies to laws that aim to protect the mentally disabled.

Currently, prosecutors can use one of 17 aggravating circumstances to argue for death sentences in murder cases.

“Under the current law, virtually any murder is eligible for the death penalty,” said St. Louis attorney Douglas Copeland, who co-chaired the assessment committee that drafted the recommendations.

The committee’s report, released during a news conference at the state Capitol today, recommends a substantial revision of the aggravating circumstances policy, narrowing the use only to the most serious cases.

“Such revisions would substantially reduce the risk that the death penalty will be arbitrarily applied and would obviate the need for the Supreme Court of Missouri to consider every intentional homicide case in its death sentence proportionality review,” according to the report.

St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch agreed the list of aggravating circumstances could be tweaked in a way that would not interfere with prosecutorial duties.

“There are some on the list that have probably never been used,” he said.

Several on the list also appear to overlap.

Among the aggravating circumstances are scenarios in which the victim was killed as the result of an airplane hijacking and cases in which the murder was “outrageously or wantonly vile.”

McCulloch, who serves as president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, defended the work of prosecutors in the state.

“Missouri’s prosecutors work hard every day to ensure that the guilty are punished and the innocent are protected,” he said. “No one cares more that the death penalty is fairly and effectively applied than Missouri’s prosecutors.”

Missouri is the 10th state for which the ABA has sponsored a death penalty report.

Copeland said the committee members’ views on the death penalty were split. The ABA has sought a moratorium on use of the death penalty in the United States, but the Missouri group did not consider whether the state should end the use of capital punishment, he said.

Instead, the goal, Copeland said, was to “minimize the risk of executing the innocent” and make sure that capital punishment is used only in the most egregious cases.

“Everyone must recognize that it is the ultimate penalty and one that cannot be undone,” he said. “We must get it right every time.”

But McCulloch said he thinks that the courts should decide whether death penalty policies are fair, rather than a group appointed by the ABA.

“The guidance is there in the courts’ decisions and state statute,” McCulloch said. “Those are the standards we follow. What other standards do we need?”

The review committee did not look at specific death penalty cases in the state, but it used ABA guidelines to identify its recommendations.

Most of the recommendations would have to be implemented through state law. The implementation would not affect or invalidate any of the 46 people currently on Missouri’s death row.

Aside from changes to the cases in which the death penalty can be sought, the group has recommended increasing standards for collecting and preserving DNA evidence in capital murder cases, adopting new eyewitness identification policies and providing exemption for people who suffer from extreme mental disabilities.

In 2001, Missouri banned the execution of the mentally retarded.

“The same rules should apply to the severely mentally ill,” Copeland said.

McCulloch said he doesn't think additional policies are needed because the state Supreme Court and the U.S. Surpeme Court already have determined that Missouri's current policies are legal.

"Case law covers it," he said.

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