JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri House Public Safety Committee began their committee meeting with an April Fool’s Day joke that the hearing had been canceled. But later legislators had the not-so-humorous task of discussing a House bill that would create a death penalty commission and impose a moratorium. The committee lead a discussion on the bill with bipartisan support and only about six weeks to pass before the legislative session is over.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bill Deeken, R-Jefferson City, said he was in favor of the death penalty despite his bill’s suggestion to stop any initiatives to execute until January 2011.
Deeken said that he was willing to look for other options.
“If I was on a jury and condemned a person to death, and he was put to death, and I found out five years later that he was not guilty, that would be very hard for me to live with,” Deeken said.
The bill addresses issues such as adequate access to evidence, adequate council and racial discrepancies.
Deeken said that his goal is to make sure the person convicted of murder is indeed guilty of the crime.
“The commission will make recommendations for changes to the law and court rules regarding death penalty cases to ensure that first, defendants who are sentenced to death are in fact guilty of first degree murder,” he said.
One representative expressed concern that this bill could make it too difficult to sentence someone to capital punishment because there may always be some level of scrutiny.
“How do you reach that level where you say ‘are in fact’?” asked Rep. Scott Lipke, R-Jackson. “My sense is that this is a vehicle to totally do away with the death penalty because I think a lot of the things you brought up, you could put as a referendum on our whole judicial system whether the person is eligible for the death penalty or not.”
DNA evidence was also frequently discussed in the meeting.
“I think with this whole DNA revolution we really need to stop and put a deadbolt lock on the executions until we can better understand if this here is really justifiable when it comes to equality,” said Rep. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis.
Witnesses who spoke in favor of the bill included Dennis Fritz, a man who spent 12 years in prison before his case was overturned and he was released due to the introduction of DNA evidence.
Deeken said that forensic testing should be considered in trials on capital punishment. “Appellate and post conviction procedures are adequate to correct errors and injustices occurring at the trial level including access to evidence for forensic testing,” Deeken said.
Deeken also addressed adequate council in the bill.
“Defendants are provided adequate council and adequate resources at trial and at the appellate and postconviction stages,” he said.
Kevin Green of California also spoke in favor of the bill. He spent 16 years in prison for the murder of his daughter before his conviction was overturned.
“Do we have adequately trained individuals who are tasked with the responsibility of defending the life of someone we have decided needs to die?” Green asked.
The suggested commission would consist of 10 members, including two members of the Senate, two members of the House, the state public defender, the attorney general, a private criminal defense attorney, a county prosecutor, a family member of a murder victim and a family member of a person on death row.
There have been 66 executions in the state of Missouri since 1989, said Brian Hauswirth, spokesman for the Department of Corrections. Although there are 46 men currently on death row, there are no executions scheduled at this time.
Of the 46 death row inmates, 21 of them are black.
“Too many African-Americans are being sentenced to death while other ethnic background races are just in jail waiting for their time,” Nasheed said.
Deeken said that he wants to make sure that “race does not play an impermissible role in determining which defendants are sentenced to death ... and prosecutors throughout the state seek the death penalty in a uniform fashion.”
In April 2003, the Missouri Supreme Court overturned a conviction for Joseph Amrine from Kansas City for a murder that occurred 17 years prior to his conviction. There were problems with the testimony of three inmates who identified him. In 2004, Leamon White’s death penalty sentence was also overturned.
The American Bar Association, comprised of more than 413,000 members, asked for a national moratorium in October after a three-year study uncovered many flaws within the system.
“I truly believe that at some point in this state capitol that we have to take this argument outside of the committee rooms to the third floor of the House and debate this issue in a way where the state of Missouri, the constituents of Missouri can see that this is injustice at its core,” Nasheed said.
Although nobody testified against the bill, the committee didn’t take any immediate action.