Illinois death penalty abolishment sparks discussion in Missouri

Thursday, March 10, 2011 | 9:40 p.m. CST; updated 6:44 p.m. CDT, Saturday, April 9, 2011

COLUMBIA — The governor of Illinois signed a bill into law Wednesday that will abolish the death penalty in the state, saving the lives of 15 people on death row. Some Missouri residents hope the act will initiate change in this state as well.

Jeff Stack, coordinator of the Mid-Missouri Fellowship of Reconciliation, cheered about the news. Stack, a Columbia resident who's worked since the late 1980s to abolish the death penalty, called Illinois "an enlightened neighbor."

"We look forward to the day when Missouri no longer does state killings," Stack said.

Susan Carlson, D-St. Louis, filed a bill Tuesday to repeal the death penalty in Missouri.

While Illinois had executed 12 people since 1976 and released 20 from death row who were wrongfully convicted, Missouri has executed 68 people since 1976 and released three. Currently, 53 people wait on death row in Missouri.

The bill is the latest in a long history of attempts to repeal the death penalty in Missouri.

"The bill has no chance to pass," Missouri state rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, said. "There's no way that it could possibly get the votes that it needs."

The bill has 34 co-sponsors and has been read twice before the House. No hearings were scheduled as of Thursday.

Kelly said the sponsors likely wanted to draw attention to the issue of capital punishment to "see if we in the United States and in the state of Missouri want to rethink the death penalty."

Stacks said regardless of the bill's viability, he hopes it will give voice to the issue.

"It's time for the dialogue to become more public," he said.

Paul Litton, an MU law professor, also said capital punishment deserved public discussion.

"I don't know if the Illinois change will spark debate in Missouri, but I think it should," he said.

Litton is co-chairman of an independent committee reviewing Missouri's use of the death penalty. The review, which all states are urged to go through, is headed by the American Bar Association.

Litton spoke of three people released from death row in Missouri because they were wrongfully convicted.

"The fact that fewer cases have come to light where an innocent person was on death row doesn't mean that Missouri has not executed an innocent person," Litton said.

Litton also said during this time of economic difficulty, reviewing the death penalty is pertinent.

Stephen Hanlon, the project steering committee chairman for the review, said he thought the Illinois decision would have an impact on other states.

"It's a large industrial state that actually did get down in the weeds and study, and I think it is a very significant development," he said. "I think other states will be likely to look at what were the reasons for that."

Hanlon said the American Bar Association supported a waiting period for executions until states could ensure they measured up to appropriate standards.

"That's exactly what we've urged the states to do: impose a moratorium, study it and look at the (American Bar Association's) recommendations for reform," Hanlon said.

One of the greatest needs, he said, was adequate counsel. Defendants must have fully funded lawyers with the resources and expertise to "match the research of the state."

Most defendants don't have council who meet the standards, he said, putting those with less money in jeopardy of a lower quality defense.

"The illusion of a lawyer — that's a very dangerous thing," Hanlon said.

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