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
“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
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
“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
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.