JEFFERSON CITY -- A Senate committee passed a bill Monday granting judges and juries the power to sentence someone to death for forcibly raping or sodomizing a child younger than 12.
The senators briefly considered two separate amendments -- one requiring DNA evidence and the other making the death penalty only applicable for prior sexual offenders -- but decided against creating a litmus test for a death sentence.
The Senate Judiciary and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence passed the bill by a 6-1 vote, with Democratic Sen. Jolie Justus of Jackson County casting the lone vote of opposition.
Gov. Matt Blunt, who stumped for the legislation earlier Monday in Springfield, called a violent sex crime against a child one of "the worst crimes that any criminal can commit."
"I urge the General Assembly to send me legislation making the rape of a young child punishable by death," Blunt said on the south steps of the Greene County Historic Courthouse. "Those evil predators who rob our children of their youth and innocence deserve the most serious punishment that we can possibly deliver."
Proponents say chances of the bill getting passed this legislative session are slim, but they're pushing it forward to the full Senate to get a debate going in before October, when the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on a similar law already on the books in Louisiana.
In March, Blunt and 28 Republican lawmakers in Missouri filed a "friend of the court" brief with the U.S. Supreme Court, urging justices to uphold the law.
Sen. Matt Bartle, chairman of the state Senate judiciary panel, said if the Louisiana law is upheld, legislatures across the country will have a "green light" to pass similar laws.
Bartle said the public wants predators who commit especially heinous crimes against vulnerable children to pay the ultimate price.
"It's the rape of the prepubescent child that society is saying 'we want the death penalty for that,'" said Bartle, a Republican from Lee's Summit.
The Senate bill, introduced by Sen. Jack Goodman, R- Mount Vernon, would add the death penalty as an option, but also allow a sentence of life without parole for such convicts.
Criminals convicted of raping or sodomizing a child are currently required to spend a minimum 30 years in prison, after the General Assembly toughened penalties for those crimes in 2006.
Even that sentence is too lenient for certain crimes, Blunt said Monday, mentioning the case of Jeffery Dickson, the 36-year-old Springfield man accused of raping and sodomizing a seven-year-old girl before leaving her for dead in a burning house earlier this month.
The Senate committee's passage of the bill Monday night came at a time of controversy regarding the death penalty itself.
Some lawmakers want to temporarily halt executions, which had already been on hold in Missouri until Wednesday, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Kentucky's lethal injection process does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
The Missouri Supreme Court has not yet set any execution dates in light of that ruling, but a House bill would put a three-year moratorium on executing inmates on death row while a study of the practice is conducted by a bipartisan commission.
Given the polarizing nature of the death penalty debate, Blunt conceded the Senate bill might face hurdles making it to his desk.
"It's certainly not a sure thing," he said. "If it doesn't happen this year, there will be yet another horrific crime where we all wonder why the death penalty's not available.
"I guarantee it."
Goodman -- who visited Springfield with Blunt earlier the day -- proposed an amendment to the legislation Monday night that would only allow the death penalty to be administered to prior sexual offenders. Bartle suggested requiring DNA evidence for the death penalty.
Goodman said he proposed the substitute as a way to make the bill more viable for passage on the Senate and House floor. The prior conviction requirement was voted down after Goodman said he'd rather stick with the bill's original language.
Sen. Chris Koster, D-Harrisonville, argued against making DNA evidence or a prior sexual offense a prerequisite for lethal injection.
The former Cass County prosecutor cited a case he worked many years ago in which a man was drugging young girls and then video taping himself raping and performing oral sex on them in his home.
"We had the tapes of him raping that he kept as trophies," said Koster, a former Republican running for attorney general this year.
Koster said the man pleaded guilty. And even though police had no DNA evidence, Koster said the case merited the death penalty.
Goodman, a Lawrence County attorney, agreed a DNA requirement is unnecessary.
"I don't think a prosecutor today would ever ask for the death penalty unless we had DNA evidence involved," he said. "I don't think a jury would ever give a death penalty. I don't think a judge would give a death penalty without that evidence."
Bartle noted the Louisiana case pending before the Supreme Court was decided without DNA evidence and the victim gave conflicting statements.
The Children's Bill of Courtroom Rights proposed by Rep. Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, became unexpectedly intertwined with the death penalty debate Monday.
The legislation, which passed the House on April 2, would grant child victims or witnesses to crimes the right to testify when they're most alert; have a person present to provide emotional support; hold a comfort item such as a stuffed animal; the right to understand the questions they're being asked and the right to testify without being badgered by an attorney.
The Missouri Bar opposes the legislation. But many of the rules -- including modified oaths for children -- are already in case law in the Eastern District of the Federal Court of Appeals. The west side of the state does not have similar case law, Dixon said.
Given the death penalty debate, Bartle said he had "grave constitutional concerns" about the additional rights for a child victim, especially in cases of forcible sexual abuse.
Barbara Brown, executive director of the Child Advocacy Center in Springfield, testified in favor of Dixon's legislation. She spoke about a Greene County case in which a girl was testifying against her grandfather who she alleged had been raping her for years.
Because the defense attorneys subpoenaed the girl's parents, they were not allowed to be in the courtroom to comfort her during the emotional testimony, Brown said, noting the case was later dropped.
"When children lie, they almost always lie to cover up that it happened because they almost always love their accuser, or their abuser," she said.
When Bartle asked Brown whether she thinks the death penalty should be applied in cases of child rape, she replied: "I am not for that."
Bartle shot back: "Let me just tell you, it's coming."