Vote sought in state Senate for bill examining death-penalty costs
Submitted on April 18, 2012
Joseph Kenny | email@example.com
Supporters are hoping that the Missouri Senate soon will give consideration to a bill that would examine the costs related to the death penalty.
The Missouri Senate Governmental Accountability Committee voted last month to pass the bill and send it to the full Senate. Sponsored by Sen. Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis, SB 786 would require the state auditor to examine the costs incurred by counties, prosecutors, public defenders, the Department of Corrections and the Supreme Court for at least 10 death cases and non-death penalty cases. The auditor would submit a report of his findings to the governor and the general assembly.
The Missouri Catholic Conference reported that in voting for the bill, some of the committee members who support the death penalty stated that this bill was worthy of consideration by the full Senate.
Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty has urged people to contact Sen. Bob Mayer, president pro tem of the Senate, to place the bill on the Senate calendar for debate. The organization called the bill responsible public policy. "This bill represents government being a good steward of public funds; how people feel morally about the death penalty is immaterial," it stated in an email message.
Several states have conducted similar studies, but this type of research has never been done in Missouri since the death penalty was reinstated more than 30 years ago.
Keaveny said that when Kansas conducted a cost study they found that capital cases were 70 percent more expensive than comparable non-death penalty cases.
In testifying for the bill, State Public Defender Dan Gralike noted that a major part of the expense comes in post-conviction proceedings, including direct appeals.
"These cases are so carefully scrutinized that the slightest error in cases will result in a reversal and require a new trial and these costs will be repeated," Gralike said. He gave the example of one death penalty prosecution in Missouri that has been retried five times since 1992.
In supporting the bill, Rita Linhardt of the Missouri Catholic Conference said taxpayers of Missouri have a right to know where their money is going. "This bill is not a matter of whether one supports or opposes the death penalty," Linhardt said. "It is a matter of fiscal responsibility and knowing what a public policy costs."
Sen. Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis County, chair of the committee, noted that he thinks that government's most important role is to be good fiscal stewards of the people's money and that if Missouri is spending more money on the death penalty than life without parole then the state is not being a good steward.
On March 1, the American Bar Association (ABA) released a report on the fairness and accuracy of the death penalty in Missouri. The report was the result of a two-year study conducted by a panel of Missouri law professors, private-sector attorneys and federal judges appointed to the bench by Republican and Democratic presidents. Missouri is one of 12 states whose laws, procedures and practices relating to the death penalty system the ABA is examining.
"If we're going to have a death penalty, we need to do it right -- it needs to be fair, it needs to be consistent," said Douglas Copeland, a St. Louis attorney who was part of the eight-person panel who presented the findings at a press conference.
The report did not take a moral stand on the death penalty or recommend any halt to executions in the state. The group had varying perspectives on capital punishment, Copeland said.
The report noted that one of the major problems with the current system is that Missouri has 17 "aggravating circumstances" that give prosecutors wide discretion by which they can argue to jurors that someone should be sentenced to death.
"The result is that the circumstances are so broadly drafted as to qualify virtually any intentional homicide as a death penalty case," Copeland noted.
The report recommended that the law be narrowed so that only the most serious murder cases are eligible for the death penalty.
Henry J. Waters III, editor and publisher emeritus of the Columbia Daily Tribune, referred to the Bar Association study in writing that it is time for Missouri to end the use of the death penalty. He wrote:
"If lower cost is not a factor, the only reason for the death penalty is to impose societal revenge. Some believe this is adequate, but when the state kills a person, we all take a moral risk. Occasionally a condemned person later is found innocent. Even if guilt is certain, what have we gained by killing the offender instead of locking him or her up for life, particularly if life in prison is cheaper?
"So, if the cost of life in prison is lower than imposing death, life removes the awful chance the state is killing an innocent person, and life simply is a more humane punishment ..."
Information on testimony on the bill and background on the ABA study was provided by the Missouri Catholic Conference.
"Very few of us would impose the death penalty if we had to do the deed ourselves. Instead, we send surrogates to perform the murder out of our sight and mind, and apparently we spend more in the bargain."
According to Linhardt of the Missouri Catholic Conference, the recent emphasis at the state capitol on the death penalty is significant and highlights different concerns about capital punishment.
"The ABA study showed serious flaws in our death penalty system. We cannot be sure that our system in Missouri is fair and will prevent an innocent person from being executed," Linhardt said. "The two committee hearings show that we don't know what the death penalty is costing our state and that capital punishment does not address the needs of murder victim family members."
Links : 1. http://www.senate.mo.gov/12info/BTS_Web/Bill.aspx?SessionType=R&BillID=1826402