JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri has too many reasons for which prosecutors can pursue the death penalty against murder suspects and needs to do a better job of preserving forensic evidence such as DNA samples, according to a report being released Thursday.
The report is the result of a two-year study sponsored by the American Bar Association that was conducted by a panel of law professors, private-sector attorneys and federal judges who had been nominated to the bench by Republican and Democratic presidents. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the report before it was to be publicly released later Thursday at a Capitol news conference.
The study notes that Missouri has 17 "aggravating circumstances" that give prosecutors wide discretion by which they can argue to jurors that someone should be sentenced to death. One justification, for example, is that the murder was "wantonly vile." The result is that the circumstances "are so broadly drafted as to qualify virtually any intentional homicide as a death penalty case," the report says.
The report recommends narrowing the law so that only the most serious murder case defendants are eligible for the death penalty.
It also says Missouri should do a better job of preserving "biological evidence" in death penalty cases for as long as the inmate remains behind bars. In some cases, biological evidence that does not lead to a conviction has been destroyed, leaving the inmate with little opportunity to pursue new tests if technology advances.
The report is not entirely critical of Missouri's death penalty system. It praises the state in at least five areas, including maintaining what it describes as an independent judiciary. Judges on Missouri's appellate courts and urban trial courts are appointed by the governor after being nominated by special panels while circuit judges in other areas run under partisan labels.
Missouri is the 10th state for which the American Bar Association has released an analysis of its death penalty system, and additional studies are ongoing in Texas and Virginia. Although Missouri has curtailed the number of executions carried out in recent years, it ranks fifth nationally in executions since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976.