Petition calls for death penalty moratorium in Missouri

Wednesday, November 19, 2008 | 7:20 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — A coalition consisting mainly of death penalty critics called for a moratorium on Missouri executions Wednesday in order to study the current system.

The coalition, in condemning the state's execution system, says the system has been used capriciously against the poor, minorities and those with bad lawyers. The proposed study of Missouri's execution system would focus on the cost of using the death penalty and ways to ensure it is used fairly.

The group, called Moratorium Now!, has gathered support from roughly 300 churches, businesses and private organizations. It plans to deliver a petition pushing for the death penalty moratorium to Gov.-elect Jay Nixon and legislative leaders.

Alvin Brooks, the former mayor pro tem of Kansas City, said he wants the death penalty to become a higher-profile issue and hopes that a new administration in the governor's office could help.

"When you talk about pro-life, this is pro-life also,'' Brooks said.

Nixon, a Democrat who currently is attorney general, has said previously that he backs the use of the death penalty, and a spokesman said Wednesday that Nixon doesn't support a moratorium.

"If a jury of Missourians decides that the ultimate penalty is appropriate, then the families of victims deserve closure and justice without never-ending delays,'' Nixon spokesman Oren Shur said.

But Rep. Bill Deeken said that shouldn't stop Nixon from offering support for a moratorium on executions. Deeken, R-Jefferson City, also supports the death penalty but has filed legislation in past sessions to stall executions to allow for the completion of a study. He said the call for the moratorium is not about the death penalty but focuses on ensuring that the system is fair and executes only those who are guilty.

"Do we have the right person?'' he said. "Are we putting someone to death who was not responsible for this?''

Many of the ideas from the Deeken-sponsored legislation are included in the petition.

Missouri has 49 people awaiting execution. All are men; 28 are white and 21 are black.

The last person to be executed in Missouri was Marlin Gray in October 2005. Gray was one of four men convicted in the deaths of 21-year-old Julie Kerry and her 19-year-old sister, Robin. Police say the sisters and their male cousin were forced to jump 80 feet into the Mississippi River from the Chain of Rocks Bridge in St. Louis.

Since Gray's execution, Missouri's use of the death penalty has prompted considerable legal wrangling. A federal judge in 2006 halted all executions, declaring Missouri's lethal injection process unconstitutional after the surgeon who previously oversaw the state's executions testified he was dyslexic, sometimes transposed numbers, and operated without written procedures or supervision.

Earlier this year, the same federal judge upheld written protocols that the Missouri Department of Corrections drafted and implemented after the 2006 ruling.

The Missouri Supreme Court in October heard arguments in a lawsuit challenging whether the Department of Corrections followed the proper steps in developing its new execution procedures.

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