More executions possible in Missouri, U.S., expert says

Wednesday, May 20, 2009 | 6:22 p.m. CDT; updated 7:03 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 20, 2009

BONNE TERRE — The execution of Dennis Skillicorn could be the first of many in the coming months in Missouri.

Skillicorn, 49, was put to death early Wednesday. He was one of three men convicted in the 1994 murder of Richard Drummond, a Good Samaritan who had stopped to help the men after their car stalled on Interstate 70.

It was the first execution in Missouri since October 2005. In 2006, capital punishment was put on hold over concerns about lethal injection in general and Missouri's three-drug method in particular. The courts ruled last year in favor of lethal injection and Missouri's protocol.

Now, more than half of Missouri's 50 death row inmates have been awaiting execution for a decade or longer, and in many cases, they are running out of appeals.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, says he expects to see a spike in executions in Missouri and around the country.

"There is a sense that at least the usual issues of a case may have been concluded in the appeals process," Dieter said.

State Rep. Scott Lipke, R-Jackson, chairs the House Crime Prevention Committee and witnessed Skillicorn's death. He said he thinks the state should move forward with executions.

"If the appeals have run their course, the dates should be set," Lipke said. "We owe it to the victims and the victims' families not to prolong it anymore."

For many years, executions were fairly common in Missouri. Since the death penalty was revived in 1989, the state has executed 67 men. The peak year was 1999, with nine executions.

Things changed in Missouri and nationally as the new century dawned. In 2000, Illinois Gov. George Ryan halted executions over concerns that the penalty was not administered fairly. New issues were raised about executing the mentally handicapped. And inmates, including Michael Taylor in Missouri, began challenging whether lethal injection violated their constitutional guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment.

The argument was that if the initial anesthetic doesn't take hold, a third drug that stops the heart can cause excruciating pain. But the inmate would not be able to communicate the pain because of a second drug that paralyzes him.

In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld lethal injection. And in July, a federal judge ruled that Missouri's execution method was constitutional.

With those hurdles cleared, states have picked up the pace on executions. The execution of Skillicorn was the 29th in the U.S. this year, Dieter said. There were 37 nationwide in all of 2008.

Missouri is showing signs of moving forward quickly. The state Supreme Court on Monday set a June 17 date to execute Reginald Clemons, one of four men convicted of pushing 21-year-old Julie Kerry and her 19-year-old sister, Robin, to their deaths from an abandoned Mississippi River bridge in St. Louis in the early 1990s.

The court has also set an execution date of Aug. 7 for Kenneth Baumruk, who at 70 is Missouri's oldest death row inmate, though anticipated appeals could push that date back. Baumruk was convicted of killing his wife and wounding four others during a 1992 shooting rampage at the St. Louis County Courthouse.

The governor doesn't have a say in setting execution dates, but he can spare the lives of inmates through clemency. Gov. Jay Nixon, the state's longtime attorney general, is a staunch supporter of capital punishment.

In Missouri, 28 inmates have been on death row for more than a decade. Five have been there since the 1980s.

Dieter believes any increase in executions will be relatively short-lived because fewer convicted killers are receiving a death sentence.

"I think juries are being more skeptical," said Dieter, whose organization is critical of the death penalty and its application. "They're sentencing people to life without parole instead. Prosecutors know it's going to take 10 to 15 years of appeals, and then it may be overturned. So they're more willing to accept plea bargains."

Dieter said that in the 1990s, about 300 people were sentenced to death each year. Nationally in 2007, 115 received the death sentence.

Missouri averaged about 10 death sentences per year through the 1990s, Dieter said. According to the most recent Bureau of Justice statistics, one person was sentenced to death in Missouri courts in 2007, four in 2006, two in 2005.

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